Reconciling Human Free Will with God’s Omniscience
The concept of free will can be easily mistaken for a strike against the omniscience of God. Many who wish to discredit the qualities of God cite that the existence of free will excludes the possibility that God is omniscient, for if God is omniscient, then surely there can be no freedom in human action. If God already knows what we are going to do before we do it, then, the argument goes, we do not have to think about our actions, for they are already determined. The other side states that the quality of God’s omniscience is compatible with human free will, that his omniscience does not necessarily preclude free will. This paper will show that it is possible for God to be omniscient at the same time that humans can act freely.
Aristotle states in the Nicomachean Ethics that voluntary and involuntary actions are to be used “with reference to the moment of action” (350). He deems voluntary actions those in which “the principle that moves the instrumental parts of the body in such actions is in” the agent, and the things that the “moving principle is in a man himself are in his power to do or not to do” (350). In other words, voluntary or free action is committed when the acting agent is not moved to action by outside forces but rather those forces within the person that cause him or her to act or not to act. Involuntary action, then, is action caused by outside forces, for example the person moved to commit an action they would not otherwise do unless their own life or the life of someone they loved was in danger does not voluntarily act (350). Aristotle asks the question of what makes an act voluntary or involuntary, and distinguishes between the two that the former relates to the principle act as coming from within the agent and the former as acting upon the agent and forcing the action (350-51). Here is where Aristotle comes to the concept of choice, and he distinguishes it from voluntary action in that it is not influenced by “appetite or anger or wish or a kind of opinion” but something that is “what is chosen before other things” (351). Aristotle’s treatment of choice informs the opinion of the philosophers who follow.
St. Thomas Aquinas responds to Aristotle’s definitions mentioned above, however it is only the third objection Aquinas raises that bears the most weight for the purposes of this paper. Aquinas grants that there is some principle both within and without the agent that moves it. Human action differs from that of stones in that humans “ have a knowledge of the end…by which they not only act but also act for the end” (366). For Aquinas, the term “voluntary” implies that the agent is knowingly acting toward some end, and it is in this way that human action is committed freely. Ultimately, Aquinas deems human action as moved by God (367). He maintains, “it is not contrary to the character of a voluntary act that it proceed from God” (367). In other words, Aquinas is comparing the movement of nature as attributed to God to human action, which is also attributed to God, but that does not mean that human beings are like robots because humans commit actions toward an end, knowingly, and in this way commit freely. However, Aquinas maintains that God moves us to action, and it is in this that he must be rejected if the position that humans act freely is to be maintained. It is not possible for God to move us to action at the same time that we commit the very same action of our own free will. He believes, as Aristotle does, that God is the primary mover or unmoved mover from which all actions ensue. Without God, Aquinas seems to be saying, we would not be present in the first place in order to act. Were it not for God, we would not be on the planet contemplating the freedom of our actions. Just as God has created the whole of the universe, so God has created us, and we act according to his will.
Augustine presents the core argument about God’s omniscience and human free will. If God knows beforehand that I am going to sin, then it is necessary that I sin, since God is all knowing, and if I do not sin, but God supposedly knows I am going to sin, then God is not all knowing. Augustine distinguishes between necessity and will, “we grow old by necessity, not by will” (369). He states that despite the fact that God knew beforehand what would come to pass, it does not interfere with free actions. “Nevertheless, we are not forced to believe…that you are going to be happy when you do not want to be” (369). Though God knows I will be happy, he cannot force me to be happy when I do not want to be happy in the same way that I cannot be hungry if I have just eaten a big meal. Augustine further states that God has knowledge of our wills, not of our actions, and it is our wills that inform our actions. Though God has foreknowledge of even of our actions, the will he bestowed upon us means that our actions are our own, whether or not God sees them first. But God remains all knowing for Augustine, and God sees even our wills, but does not force us to our wills. This leads to the difference between necessity and will for Augustine. He elaborates on this point through the idea of God punishing sinners for their sins. It would be counter for God to ordain a sinner to sin necessarily and then punish the sinner for a sin that could not have been avoided, and it would be cruel of God to punish someone for something they could not have done otherwise, which would lead some to reject the quality in God that he is all good in addition to rejecting the quality of omniscience.
Philosopher William Rowe rounds out this discussion by building on what Aquinas and Augustine have said, maintaining that there is a difference between knowing something is going to happen and “foreordaining” that thing to happen (374). However, Rowe offers a way out of the problem that, although not entirely compelling, is at least a bridge that can be used again to attempt to solve the problem at hand. In the argument that because God knows before we are born everything we are going to do in our lifetime, it is not in our power to do otherwise, and therefore there is no such thing as human free will, Rowe seeks to find fault with the whole argument in search of a solution. His reasoning is not persuasive and rests mainly on the wording of the argument, which is problematic to begin with. Though Rowe is correct in asserting that it is not necessarily true that God knowing beforehand everything we are about to do before we do it, and that the conclusion of this is that there is no such thing as human free will, his solution to the problem brings us no closer to actually solving the issue than before. However, Rowe’s statement of the problem this argument brings to light is compelling in that it illuminates the argument fully. If God knows that I am about to type this sentence, and if I do not, then either God is all knowing or he is not. Either I have the power to type out this sentence, or I do not. The argument may better be solved with examples.
One example follows thus: suppose I am walking in a park and I see a man walking a pit bull, a dog notorious for being used in dogfights and for being extremely aggressive, especially when provoked. The man can barely control his pit bull—the dog is tugging at the leash and the owner can barely walk without being pulled forward by the dog. Now suppose that after a round about the park I come across another man with another dog, not a pit bull but another large dog, equally as powerful over this second owner as the pit bull is over the first owner. This second dog seems to be pulling the man at the other end of the leash, rather than the man walking the dog. In another round I can see the two dogs will be crossing paths, and as they near each other, their ears perk up and they start tugging against their leashes harder, seeing the other coming closer. It is evident that a quarrel is about to break out, and though I know this is about to happen, I am not willing it to happen. The evidence speaks loudly, and soon enough the two dogs are snarling and snapping at each other, forcing the owners to yank on the leashes and get in the way of the dogs to break things up before the conflict escalates. Again, though I knew beforehand that the dogs would at least quarrel with each other, if not exactly engage in a fight, I did not make their quarrel happen.
Dogs, however, may not be prime examples, since, as Aristotle maintained, dogs are moved by appetite, and do not choose to act; they act according to their nature. As such, a better example might be as follows: I have a friend whom I know very well. I know him so well that I know he would be happy to receive concert tickets to a show he had not been able to afford attending. I myself have not bought the tickets, but rather received said tickets as a reparation gift from another friend, and I am not interested in attending this show. Rather than letting the tickets go to waste, I contact my friend and inform him that I have a surprise and invite him to lunch. At lunch, I present the tickets to my friend, free of charge. Prior to the lunch I am atwitter with anticipation, as I know full well what my friend’s reaction at my surprise will be. And yet, I am not forcing him to react in such a way. Indeed it is in his full power to act with indifference if he so wishes, and though it is very possible for him to act differently than I know he will act, the very fact that he has acted the way I foresaw does not alter the freedom of his action in any way. It is in this same way that God is able to know beforehand everything we are going to do before we do it, and yet not have any bearing on the freedom of our actions.
“But,” a dissenter might say, “the friend may be acting out of courtesy, not wanting to hurt your feelings because you said you had a surprise for him.” Though it is possible, there are any number of surprises I could have presented to my friend, such as announcing that I am going to marry next week to a person I detest, or that I am going to the moon, or that I will be undergoing a sex change. Nothing in what I told my friend implied I had a gift for him, only a surprise, which could have been any number of things, and as such the idea that his reaction to the concert tickets was a courtesy to refrain from hurting my feelings is null. The point in this second example is to show how one may know something without necessarily forcing that thing to occur. The qualities of God, that he is all knowing, all-powerful, and all good, make it more than likely that God can both see what we will do and not interfere with our actions. Knowing does not preempt the actions of others; to say that a serial rapist will commit another rape if he was to be let out of jail is not equal to saying that society is forcing him to commit rape, but it is evident that such an action will occur.
The issue at hand remains whether I will type this next sentence or I will not, and whether my decision stems from my own free will or whether it was preordained. As Rowe has put it, there is a difference between knowing something will happen and making that thing happen. I am maintaining that it is possible for a divine being like God to know beforehand everything that will happen and yet for humans to act with free will. The problem of reconciling human free will with God’s all knowing quality is the idea that if he already knows what I am about to do, then my actions have no real consequences. I do not have to regret treating someone disrespectfully, because if I had no other choice, then there is no point in my feeling regret for that action. If I do have a choice, if I really can act of my own free will, then my regret for my actions is no longer arbitrary. Yet the question remains about God’s omniscience and whether that quality precludes any genuine choices. As such, I maintain that it is possible to know something will happen, as in my example of knowing the dogs were going to quarrel and of my friend’s reaction to a surprise, without impacting the outcome. It is in this way that I believe God is able to know what we are going to do without interfering with our actions.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. “The Summa Theologica.” Metaphysics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Comp. and Ed. Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. United States: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. 366-367.
Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics.” Metaphysics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Comp. and Ed. Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. United States: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. 348-352.
Augustine, St. “On Free Choice of the Will.” Metaphysics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Comp. and Ed. Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. United States: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. 368-371.
Rowe, William L. “Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.” Metaphysics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Comp. and Ed. Ronald C. Hoy and L. Nathan Oaklander. United States: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. 371-380.