Why would omniscience and free will be mutually exclusive?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by wynn, Jul 17, 2011.

  1. Big Chiller Registered Senior Member


    This just leads to the question can omniscience be attributed to a being without being attributed along with omnipotence and vice versa.
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  3. Arkonos Registered Senior Member


    If you know everything that is to happen then if you decide to act otherwise you could not as you would know of your actions beforehand and thus would not have done anything outside your knowledge.
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  5. Pierre-Normand Registered Member

    I notice that at least five posters -- RedRabbit, Sarkus, Rav, TrendingSideways and Enmas -- seem to accept the idea that God's foreknowledge of someone's actions preclude them being exercises of free will. It does not seem to me to follow at all that if God, or anyone else, knows on good grounds what it is I will do in advance of my deciding to do it that this should entail that my action or my will wasn't free.

    I think the faulty inferential step was produced explicitly by one poster who suggested that the agent wouldn't be free "in virtue of their only being one possible conclusion". But is doesn't simply follow from the fact that P is true that P is necessarily true. Neither does it follow from the fact that P is known to be true that it is necessary true. Finally, it does not either follow from the fact that it was known in the past that P would be true at some future time that it would be so necessarily.

    So it may be that God knew a long time ago that I would eat ice-cream today. All that follows from this is that whatever explains my doing so might have been known by God back then. It does not follow that my eating ice-cream today is necessary. If I had chosen not to eat any ice-cream today then God would have known that also. If different courses of action are open to me today and I am free to choose among them then, correlatively, God could have known then back then. It is possible for God to have necessary foreknowledge of my actions and for me, counterfactually, to refrain from doing what I in fact did if it is possible for God to have foreseen that.
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  7. arfa brane call me arf Valued Senior Member

    That just isn't logical, an omniscient being doesn't need to know about "courses of action".

    If you mean that God, being omniscient, knows beforehand which course of action you choose, then how can there be any concept of choice, other than for yourself? How or why would an omniscient being need to know about "choice", if they know what you do and what you will do?
  8. Pierre-Normand Registered Member


    I am just using the phrase "course of action" to make room for the possibility of an alternate course. I may just have mentioned alternate actions. What I am saying is this. If necessarily, at time t, I must perform action A, then my will isn't free if freedom of the will entails the possibility of my choosing (and succeeding in performing) some alternate action A'. I accept this. However, the fact that God, or anyone else, knew beforehand (at time t' earlier than t) that I would set out to do A fails to entail that it is impossible at time t that I would do A' instead. This only follows if we assume that one can only know among the truth values of propositions regarding future events those that are necessarily true and not those that are contingently true. This, I believe, does not follow from anything specifically about the nature of time, knowledge or modal logic (the logic of possibility and necessity). Hence, there is no rational validity to the inference.

    Maybe I should provide a hint as to what I think drives people to draw the incorrect inference. It must have to do with an unstated premise regarding determinism. People tacitly assume that if it can be known before event E occurs that it will in fact occur, then this knowledge must be grounded into some empirical fact that already obtains and from which it deterministically follows that that E will occur in the future. One would then have to set out to prove that this yields a sense of historical inevitability that precludes freedom of the will. I don't personally think such a proof can be achieved but I will not argue further for this now.
  9. Rav Valued Senior Member


    Funny how you call my logic faulty and then go on to throw around the classic theist cop out of "it all makes sense in an incomprehensible way" which is itself built upon the unprovable assertion that a personal creator god exists in the first place.

    Which is just an unnecessarily roundabout way of saying "it all makes sense in an incomprehensible way". All you've done is to present an assertion rather than provide an explanation.
  10. Pierre-Normand Registered Member


    Nothing I said remotely depends on the existence of God. In fact I am a atheist myself, but that is neither here nor there. I am arguing *against* a theistic argument for the impossibility of free-will. I you find what I say incomprehensible then I am sorry; I make my best effort to be as clear as possible while not sacrificing accuracy to simplicity.

    Don't you see that the possibility of knowledge, by *anyone*, not necessarily my some God, of the truth of a proposition about some future event fails to entail the necessity of the truth of that proposition? No concept of God is needed to see that the entailment fails to logically go trough on merely modal-logical grounds. My post was an invitation to you (and the four other posters I mentioned) to more explicitly state your premises (which I feel may have to do with belief in some form of determinism). I am sorry you felt my criticism was some kind of an insult to your intelligence. It wasn't.
  11. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    First, this thread is not necessarily about our own views - but the views of people who consider that omniscience and free-will are mutually exclusive... and the assumptions of "omniscience" and "free-will" that they operate under.

    Secondly, as mentioned by others, it rather depends on what you mean by "free-will"... as some consider it merely illusory, and some consider it the more than just a mere perception of our consciousness.
    Some views of free-will, therefore, are entirely compatible with omniscience.

    Isn't the question here of whether different courses of action WERE indeed open to you? If an omniscient entity has foreknowledge that you would choose A rather than A', then do you really have a choice?

    So the question is: what assumptions are you making of "free-will" and/or "omniscience" that make them compatible.
    The thread, afterall, is regarding the assumptions that make them incompatible... so it would be a start to give those that allow them to be compatible.

    How can you refrain from doing what you did??

    If an omniscient being knows that you will do A rather than A', then it is NECESSARILY true that you will do A... whether you see it as necessary to do A or not. In this regard it is a matter of perspective, as has been mentioned before, and your flaw is in not seeing how omniscience alters the parameters of logic when applied to the omniscient: there are no longer any possibilities or conditionals etc.

    Then you have an assumption about omniscience that allows for this... where some others don't share this assumption.
    Personally I would say (as I did above) that knowledge by an omniscient removes conditionality and possibility, and makes everything necessary... but we, as non-omniscient entities, don't / can't see this... and thus still see them as non-necessary etc.

    Nothing really to do with determinism here.
    While some form of deterministic universe lends itself more coherently to matters of omniscience, it is not a requirement.
    It just a matter of whether omniscience (which may or may not include "foreknowledge" - depending on your assumption of omniscience) is compatible with free-will (and your assumptions thereof).
  12. Rav Valued Senior Member

    I wasn't saying that your post was incomprehensible. I was saying that your critique was essentially an appeal to incomprehensibility, because you're unable to provide an explanation for how free-will and foreknowledge are compatible. All you did was state that the idea that they are incompatible is faulty.

    If God knows every detail of how the universe will unfold, then it can only unfold in that precise manner. Take another shot at refuting it if you like. Show me how it's wrong.

    I don't believe that the universe is deterministic. To hold such a belief I would have to ignore everything I've learned about physics. I also (at least tentatively) believe in the possibility of free will, although I'll freely admit it's mostly because I want to, and that it's in spite of current scientific evidence pointing to the fact that it might be something of an illusion.

    No need to worry about that. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm smart enough not to be sensitive about it. In other words, I have a thick skin, and it wasn't insulting anyway.
  13. Pierre-Normand Registered Member


    That's tight. That's also the assumption about free-will that I labour under. In the philosophical literature it is sometimes called the principle of alternate possibility (PAP). It can also naturally be conceived as a prerequisite for the ascription of moral responsibility. Intuitively, you can't act freely if there is no possibility for you to act differently. Likewise your will can't be free if there is no possibility for it to have been determined differently (i.e. for you to have intended to do something else). Harry Frankfurt has argued against the PAP, unsuccessfully in my view.

    This is precisely the inference that I am questioning, namely the inference from the existence of such foreknowledge (or even the mere possibility of someone having such foreknowledge) to the idea that I don't have a choice -- because, presumably, I don't have the power to act differently.

    I have *only* been claiming that the possibility (or actual existence) of foreknowledge by someone of what I actually did fails to preclude logically that I could have refrained to do it (or chosen to do something else).

    It may be instructive to look at the case where the foreknower is myself. Maybe I set out to mow my lawn tomorrow. Now there is every reason for me to believe I will do it and suppose I proceed to do it as intended. I thus did what I knew (albeit not infallibly) beforehand I would do and yet I could have acted differently if some reason had come up.

    What if my knowledge had been infallible and exhaustive? I would then have known that no reason would come up for me not to mow my lawn. Does it entail that I will have no power not to mow the lawn tomorrow? No. It only means that I will have no reason not to do so and I know that this is the case before the time to act has come. Now, put that foreknowledge also into the head of an external observer... or into the mind of God. I don't see that it changes anything.

    The inference you make seems to be of the form K(P)->Nec(P). If it is known that P then neccesarily P. One way this inference may intuitively seem to go through would be thus:

    (1) Nec(K(P) -> P)
    (Necessarily, if the truth of P is known (not merely believed) then P is true.)
    (2) K(P)
    (P is known to be true)
    Therefore (3) Nec(P)
    (Necessarily, P is true)

    But this is invalid in modal logic. It would only work if the first premise were (1b) K(P) -> Nec(P). So you may be making a mistake with the scope of the modal operator when you say that "If an omniscient being knows that you will do A rather than A', then it is NECESSARILY true that you will do A". You are jumping from (2) to (3). You would need an additional premise of the form (1b) to do so validly but the only reasonable premise seems to be (1), unless you can supply some justification for (1b) or suggest a different argument form.
  14. Pierre-Normand Registered Member

    Hi Rav,

    Thanks for replying. I think my reply to Sarkus addresses precisely this question of yours. You present this inference from knowledge to necessity as something somewhat evident but you don't offer any reason for your belief in its validity. I take a shot at refuting it with a counterexample and through displaying the invalid logical form of the tacit argument most likely to underwrite its intuitive appeal, above.
  15. Rav Valued Senior Member

    I find it interesting how you chose to word your argument there, specifically the part about not having a reason not to mow the lawn. The foreknowledge in question in this circumstance would only have to be of the absence of any external influences that might prevent you from doing what you had originally planned to do. This is a kind of foreknowledge that while still possibly suggestive of some kind of determinism is not necessarily in conflict with free will. It would be similar to saying that God knows that the world is not going to end tomorrow because there's nothing that's about to destroy it (such as a comet on a collision course). The problem is that it's not the most accurate characterization of the sort of thing we're discussing.

    A better example would be foreknowledge of the fact that at the 9:34 am this coming Saturday you are going to get it into your head to mow your lawn. Or that on the 24th of September 2023 you are going to decide to buy a new cordless electric lawn mower powered by a carbon nanotube battery from your local hardware store after the sales manager offers you a 15% discount and a free leaf rake. Because God knows exactly what you are going to decide to do, when you are going to decide to do it and where you'll be when the decision is made (and every other variable in the equation), it can't possibly turn out any other way. Once the future is known (if indeed it can be known) events can only ever unfold in a manner that is perfectly consistent with that future. If they don't, the future will end up being something else, wont it? This would make the foreknowledge inaccurate.

    The best way to resolve the omnipotence paradox (omniscience should be viewed as a child of omnipotence) is to accept that it is within the power of an omnipotent being not just to create entities that are capable of operating outside of it's own will (conscious entities with free will) but to create a set of conditions within which the outcome can not be exactly known. The way to deal with the apparent resulting contradiction is simply to point out that such a being could, by virtue of it's own omnipotence, alter the aforementioned conditions to make everything knowable, but chooses not to so free will can remain intact.
  16. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    The concept of "I could have done differently" is, in this regard, merely a conscious perception... some would say much like free-will.
    Foreknowledge negates the possibility of an actual alternative... although certainly does not negate the idea that "I could have done differently".

    If you DID ACTUALLY do differently then there was no foreknowledge - merely an assessment of future performance that proved incorrect.

    With regard omniscience, surely this implies infallibility.
    And with regard foreknowledge, surely this knowledge MUST NECESSARILY be TRUE, otherwise it is not really foreknowledge.

    This is fine if you consider free-will to be merely a conscious perception, as I have previously suggested.
    Further, is it possible for a conscious human to have genuine foreknowledge prior to an event happening IF that event has a possibility of not occurring.
    I would argue that knowledge MUST be true... and if you can't demonstrate that it IS true then you don't have knowledge but merely a personal assessment (however accurate it might be).
    E.g. while we may casually speak of "I know I will mow the lawn tomorrow", we in fact merely make an assessment (possibly with high probability of accuracy) of likely future actions. It is only AFTER (or during) the event/act that we can claim knowledge.
    Thus an omniscient person who has genuine foreknowledge knows that there is zero probability of it not occurring... and thus the future event is a NECESSARY truth.
    I would argue YES, although "reason" is a conscious perception. If you change your mind then there must have been a reason... even if that reason was to try to demonstrate that you could change your mind.
    And you will also have built into your foreknowledge any compulsion, reason, thought of "changing your mind". But you wouldn't. You would necessarily mow your lawn... otherwise you would not have had foreknowledge.

    It doesn't change anything... but you need to understand what it doesn't change.

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    It might be question begging, but to me an omniscient being turns all truths into necessary truths... and it is merely our non-omniscient perception that keeps them as non-necessary.
    As such the very nature of omniscience would be (1b): If an omniscient being knows P, then there is no possibility to him of it not being P. Is this not the very definition of "necessary"?
    As such, for an omniscient being - or even where omniscience is possible - (1b) holds.
    While for us mere non-omniscients, we might see some "possibility" of the truth being conditional, and thus (1b) would not be a reasonable premise to us.
    Should we ever logically prove omniscience as a possibility within our universe then (1b) will be reasonable.

    But here we are assuming omniscience - and thus (1b) is a reasonable premise.

    But, as said, this might be too much question-begging - and I guess would mean that I have at least identified an assumption of my understanding of omniscience.

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  17. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    But then the being would not be omniscient - and under the conditions it set it COULD NOT be... and thus it limits its own omnipotence - and thus it can not either be omnipotent. :shrug:

    Therefore I think the contradiction remains.

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  18. Rav Valued Senior Member

    I guess I am going to have to continue to play devil's advocate now

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    I guess one just has to decide if a self-imposed limitation, which can be removed at any time, is actually a limitation at all. Exercising power is not necessarily a prerequisite for wielding it. America, for example, has the power to destroy the world several times over with it's nuclear arsenal, but just because it chooses not to do so isn't representative of a limitation of it's ability to do so.
  19. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Good point, but I think my point is more that one could not have omniscience, omnipotence AND free-will all in play at the same time: one or more needs to be limited in scope to allow for the other(s)... possibly?
  20. Rav Valued Senior Member

    I don't think so either, which is why the concept of God, as it is typically defined, is nonsensical. The universe itself makes the best God of all if you ask me.
  21. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Suppose that I believed last week that you would eat ice-cream today. We can perhaps agree that my belief wasn't necessarily true last week. Had you passed up the ice-cream today, then my belief would have turned out to have been false all along. In fact, it can plausibly be argued that my belief last week didn't even possess a truth-value until the event came to pass this week. (Or maybe it was a quantum-style superposition of truth-values or something.) There are still ongoing debates about the logical analysis of future-contingents.

    The thing is, I'm not entirely convinced that kind of analysis applies to this God character. If God knows something, then wouldn't the truth of whatever it is that God knows be necessary truth, simply because God knows it? That might (or then again, it might not) follow from the impossibility of God being mistaken about anything and the inconceivability that God ever makes errors.

    (And that in turn is a theological matter for particular theistic religious traditions to address. I don't believe in God myself and don't think that the question of how necessity applies to God has any objective answer. He's basically a fictional character as I see it, and has whatever properties the religious traditions have given him.)
  22. Big Chiller Registered Senior Member


    While there's necessary truth in omniscience that is not to be confused with the event that it's pertaining to to be necessary, the event itself is inherently contingent.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2011
  23. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    How can we say that "the event itself is inherently contingent" while simultaneously saying that the proposition corresponding to the event is not only true, but necessarily true?

    If God expects X to happen, and if its impossible for God to ever be mistaken, then what possibility remains that Y might happen instead?

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