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Does an Omniscient God contradict Free Will?

Does an Omniscient God contradict Free Will? Yes, a very age-old question, with many answers. The problem seemed to arise when we thought that if God knows what we will do or "choose" then it's metaphysically necessary for us to choose or do that, because what God knows IS true, thus it's true event A will happen if God knows it will. There's no Free Will because there's no chance that event A can NOT happen, in this view Free Will is just an illusion. But! Some Philosophers have objected by saying that God's knowledge is from or depends on our choice, it's formed by the choices we genuinely (freely?) make for ourselves, because God's omniscience is "logically simultaneous" with our choices. So God's knowledge doesn't write out history, history writes out God's knowledge. (By the way doesn't this make god a contingent being? Thus precluding God from "working" as an answer for the modal ontological and cosmological argument, since God is not a non-contingent being?) But I've never been convinced by...

First, I don't think it matters for the answer to your question whether the omniscient God is or is not the creator of the beings whose conduct He foresees. Thus suppose the rats are created not by God but by some fairy. God observes the rats and, knowing of each whether it is smart or dumb, foresees whether it will end up rewarded or punished. Can this new wrinkle in the story -- that the rats are created by some fairy rather than by God -- possibly make a difference to whether the rats have free will or not? I cannot see a reason for believing this.

(To be sure, the wrinkle makes a difference to God's responsibility: if He creates dumb rats Himself, then he is actively responsible for the suffering they predictably undergo in the punishment zone. If He's merely an onlooker, then He is at most passively responsible insofar as He could but fails to protect the dumb rats from pain.)

Second, I don't understand why there should be felt a tension between foreseeability by others and free will. The only way your conduct can be unforeseeable is for it to be indeterminate: ruled from moment to moment by quantum events, for example. Surely, that's not a good example of free will. On the contrary, I would think that good examples of your free will are quite predictable behaviors. Those who know you know certain things about your future behavior. They know, let's say, that you are deeply committed to stand by your sister. You have carefully thought about this commitment, fully embraced it, adjusted your other values and commitments to it, built your life around it. You and others assume that you could cut your sister loose if you so chose, but you and they (and she) know that you won't. Here the firmness of your commitment seems quite compatible with the freedom of your will (and others' foreknowledge is based on your commitment and not the other way around).

Returning briefly to the first point, suppose now that your firm commitment to your sister was part of a plan your mother hatched before giving birth to you. Knowing of her daughter's frailty, she deliberately had a second child who would stand by her first one. When you were old enough to understand, she explained all this to you and helped you appreciate the wonderful difference you could make to your sister's life. Your mother correctly foresaw that you would be moved by this appreciation and would become committed to standing by your sister. Again, I don't see how adding in this additional information about the history of your commitment to your sister undermines the initial judgment that your foreseeable loyalty to your sister is compatible with your free will.

The difficulty of the free-will problem seems to be not specific to certain scenarios (e.g., free will in a world with an omniscient creator god), but quite general: how to make sense of it at all.

Has the idea of responsibility for NOT having a certain thought been addressed

Has the idea of responsibility for NOT having a certain thought been addressed in the free will literature? Certain forms of compatibilism seem to hinge on denying that we are 'bypassed', a term described very well by Professor Nahmias as referring to "the idea that our conscious deliberations, our desires, or our reasons play no role in what happens" (quoted from his response to question 3236 on 6/1/10). But what about thoughts and ideas that simply don't occur to us? There is no grand buffet of potential thoughts that I (whatever "I" means) get to choose from, I can't prevent myself from having something occur to me and I can't force something to occur to me. So how could I be responsible for the absence of a certain thought. Clearly there are uncountably many situations in which someone's failure to act or someone's decision to act lead to consequences that may not have happened had a different thought occurred to the person. But, in a certain sense, they were definitely bypassed in the ...

Great question. Here's a question for you:

Suppose a friend asks you to pick her up at the airport (or water her plants while she's gone). Suppose you promise to do so. Suppose (scenario A) that you fail to put down your obligation in your calendar. Or suppose (scenario B) that you put it in your calendar but fail to check your calendar on the day of your obligation. Question: are you responsible for failing to honor your obligation?

It seems to me that, unless there are some mitigating circumstances (e.g., you had a migraine that incapacitated you), you are responsible. But you might retort: "I simply never had the thought (A) to write it in my calendar or (B) to check my calendar that day. How can I be responsible for not doing what I promised when I didn't have a particular thought that [we can assume] is necessary for my doing it?"

My response is that you should have had the relevant thoughts and (in the controversial compatibilist sense of "could") you could have had the relevant thoughts. You are blameworthy for failing to have those thoughts and that is why you are blameworthy for (A) your poor friend being stuck at the airport and having to waste money on a cab or (B) your friend's poor plant dying.

Why could you have had the relevant thoughts? Because you have the capacities to think about what sorts of things you need to do to fulfill obligations like this (you've done it before, nothing obstructed you from doing it, your capacities were in working order, etc.). It is true that you cannot "force" a particular thought to come to mind. But you can do the sorts of things you need to do to have certain types of relevant thoughts. (E.g. "I just promised to pick up my friend at the airport. Now, what should I do to make sure I remember to do that?" And that will likely lead to calendar thoughts coming to mind. Whereas, this is less likely to: "Sure, I'll pick you up." Whatever, now what was I watching on TV.)

Having said all this, you are right to wonder about how much control we have over what particular thoughts we have (and the effects of those thoughts on our choices and actions). There is interesting literature on this question. And I haven't addressed the "deep" incompatibilist worry that, if determinism is true, then (in some sense of "could") we could not think anything other than what we actually think. Other than the fact that I think the incompatibilist worry is mistaken, I have ignored it because in this context it is not any different than the worry as applied to choices or actions.

Hope this helps! (And don't forget to pick up your friend and water the plants.)

Hi, what an awesome website!

Hi, what an awesome website! I have another free will related question to add to the heap! I saw an interview with Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize winning physicist and, I don't remember the precise phrasing, but he said something like 'I know of no law saying that nature is here to make physicists happy.' He wasn't referring to free will, but it got me thinking about something... From what I've read and heard in papers and talks (which is certainly not nearly exhaustive), it seems that their is a tendency for those who chime in on the free will issue (even professional philosophers) to approach it from the perspective that the challenge is to show that free will does not or cannot exist. What I mean is that there seems to be a tacit presumption that since we "feel" free, the burden of proof is on those who contend we are in reality not free. I understand this perspective (and it is not unique to the free will debate), but it seems to presuppose some kind of rule that says that our feelings...

As a panelist, I'm glad you like the website. Spread the word!

I don't think we need to invoke feelings in order to assign the burden of proof to those who challenge the existence of free will. In the literal sense, feelings have nothing to do with it: I don't think we have reason to believe, for instance, that causally undetermined actions have a characteristic "feel" to them that causally predetermined actions lack. But neither do we have reason to believe that they don't have a characteristic feel to them. So you're right that it's only fair to leave the phenomenology -- the literal feel of our actions -- out of it.

There's also the metaphorical use of "feel," as in "I just feel that human beings sometimes act freely." Feelings in that sense too are irrelevant, I think. But the reason that those who challenge the existence of free will bear the burden of proof is that pre-philosophically -- i.e., before examining the issue philosophically -- we start with a widespread set of beliefs and practices according to which people do at least sometimes act freely, i.e., act in ways for which they are morally responsible and for which they can properly be praised or blamed. There's no denying that nearly all of us believe that people sometimes act in such ways and no denying that widespread practices reflect that belief.

Given that starting-point, therefore, we need some reason to move from it: we don't change our beliefs just for the sake of changing them (even if that were psychologically possible). So those who challenge our beliefs and practices concerning free will bear the burden of giving reasons why our beliefs are false and our practices are baseless. This isn't to say that such reasons don't exist, only that overturning the status quo requires them.

It has long been recognized that free will appears to be incompatible with the

It has long been recognized that free will appears to be incompatible with the causality observed in the rest of the universe. There is now evidence from neuroscience that free will does not really exist. Does the fact that many people - including many philosophers - find this conclusion absolutely unacceptable constitute a manifestation of the limits of the human mind's abilities?

My diagnosis is different: I think the arguments claiming that causality (specifically, deterministic causation) rules out free will, or claiming that neuroscientific results cast doubt on the existence of free will, are bad arguments. This issue came up recently here: see the discussion at Question 4792, particularly the reply by Professor Nahmias and the book review he links to.

Recently I read a newly published very short book criticisng the concept of Free

Recently I read a newly published very short book criticisng the concept of Free Will. I thought the book made some good points and some not-so- good points, but what really disturbed me is that the author didn't ever carefully define what he meant by Free Will. Is the definition of Free Will so obvious and clear that there is no need to define it in a book intended for lay readers?

Eddy: Nice article! I'm glad they tapped you to review Harris's book. (I too suspect that it's the book the questioner is referring to.) --Steve

At what point does an action change from something you do sometimes to a habit?

At what point does an action change from something you do sometimes to a habit? At what point does a habit become an addiction? Do those same points exist in reverse and are they in the same spot? Is this more of a medical question or maybe physiological? Is it a mental change you make (whether you know it or not) or a physical change? Why is it so hard to break but so easy to make worse?

Great set of questions. Certainly, these are matters that involve psychology and have an application in medicine, though philosophers from Ancient GreeK though onward have found it important to reflect on responsibility, habits, and determining when actions are truly voluntary. I suspect voluntariness is the key. The more we become habituated to a pattern of behavior, it seems that the more will power is required to break the pattern. I believe that Aristotle was right when he described the path to virtue in terms of habituation or the developing good habits or dispositions (to act justly, temperately, etc). In a sense, the virtuous person is someone who has developed a character so that they naturally and without struggle seek to do what is good. And the opposite would be true of a person in terms of vice; their character is such that they naturally and without struggle do what is cruel, destructive, and the like. Speaking more directly to your question(s) it seems that voluntary action is a scaler term (a matter of degree) and so would matters of habit or addiction. So, to take alcohol consumption, there seems to be a fairly common sense distinction between an occasional or "social" drinker, a habitual drinker, a heavy drinker, and an alcoholic, and these seem to map matters of voluntariness. Treatment centers and insurance companies are likely to treat the alcoholic as someone with very little, if any, voluntary control over their drinking, whereas someone who drinks habitually or regularly (say, one glass of wine a day) has more control, and the only occasional moderate drinker has even more control. For an excellent book on this later topic see Heavy Drinking by (and I am probably slightly misspelling his name) Finegrette.

I have a question about determinism, prediction and conscious choice. Suppose

I have a question about determinism, prediction and conscious choice. Suppose we live in a deterministic universe such that some epistemically-juiced Demon could predict future events with absolute certainty long in advance. When he sits observing, he's always right about what people are going to do. But, suppose, the Demon gets a little bored decides to try to impress some humans with his gift of prophecy. He tells me that he can predict any of my actions: for example, what I'm about to eat for lunch. He gives me an envelope and tells me to open it after I've made my lunch. I do and he's right about the sandwich I was just about to bite into. But at that point can't I just as well change my mind and eat something else? And isn't that true no matter what prediction is made, provided I'm aware of it sufficiently in advance of its "coming true"? Of course, the Demon could have made auxiliary predictions about how his telling me would affect my choice. And those could be true. But if I'm privy to...

Could you or the Demon even understand what he tells you? The Demon tells you (a) that he has predicted what you'll eat for lunch. Of course, now that he's told you that, what he's really told you is (b) that he has predicted what you'll eat for lunch given that he's told you (a). Notice that (b) isn't the same item of information as (a). But wait. If he's told you (b), then really what he's told you is (c) that he has predicted what you'll eat for lunch given that he's told you (b). Notice that (c) isn't the same item of information as (b) or (a). And so the regress continues, forever. Therefore, I wonder if anyone can understand the story you've sketched well enough to see what the story implies or what's consistent with it.

In this article, my co-author and I raised a similar worry in regard to Newcomb's problem, a famous problem in rational decision theory that also involves a predictor. But I'm not sure anyone else was convinced by our argument! In any case, you can find material that's relevant to your question by looking into Newcomb's problem; you might start with this SEP article or this Wikipedia entry. Enjoy!

I would like to be introduced to the theory of Action. Considering that I have a

I would like to be introduced to the theory of Action. Considering that I have a general philosophical knowledge, what should I read first, which concepts should I have in mind when readeing about theory of action? How can I go from the general concerns of theory of action to the specific sides of the discussion? Thank you very much.

Do the developments in quantum mechanics (i.e. the best we can do on a very

Do the developments in quantum mechanics (i.e. the best we can do on a very micro level is give probability distributions), really have anything to say about free will? It might mean that determinism isn't true (although there could be a weaker "probabilistic determinism" that gives the likelihood of different possible events), but introducing chance into the equation isn't helpful to free will either.

Also agreed.

Here is an argument that determinism doesn’t undermine, butenhances, free will.

(1) Our actions are caused by our propositional attitudes,such as desire, hope, acceptance and belief.

(2) The more deterministic the relationship between out attitudesand our actions, the more freedom of will we possess.

(4) The more control we have over our own attitudes the morefreedom of will we possess.

(5) Our control overown attitudes consists in the influence of some of our attitudes over others.E.g. We want to smoke. We also want not to smoke (These are called first-orderdesires) And we want not to want tosmoke and we do not want to want to smoke. (These are called second-orderdesires) We have freedom of the will toextent that our desire not to want to smoke wins out. (From ‘Freedom of theWill and the Concept of a Person’, Harry Frankfurt, The Journal of Philosophy,1971).

(6) The more deterministic the relationship between oursecond-order desires and our first-order desires, the more freedom of will wepossess.

(7) Determinism is irrelevant to freedom of the will in allother respects. It doesn’t matter how our attitudes got there – whether byrandom processes or deterministic ones, they are as they are. And we want themto be in control of our minds and our bodies – for self-management and managementof the external world, as far as possible.

Good self-management – looking after your own desires,emotions and reactions to things is a healthy Stoic philosophy. If you feel yourselfgetting angry and resentful ask yourself why you feel this way – for example: isyour pride affected, or your self-esteem or do you feel threatened in someother way? Ask yourself whether you might have done something to bring aboutthe situation that angers you. Ask whether realistically there is somethingconstructive that can be done to rectify matters. If vengeful thoughts arise,recognize them and banish them. No good can be achieved by vengeance. Harm toyourself would result fro, any attempts at revenge. If there is somethingconstructive to be done, decide whether to do it. If you decide to do it, doit. If you decide not to, let the matter pass and move on. Consider that youyourself would prefer peace of mind than the disturbance of the anger. In thisway you can exert some control over your own mind and attain a more sereneexistence.

Also I have heard tell that quantum laws fix the probabilityof any event’s occurring. No self or soul or will can affect theseprobabilities without violating physical laws.

Hierarchical compatiblism says that I have free will if I have the will I want

Hierarchical compatiblism says that I have free will if I have the will I want to have. The theory claims to show that my desires can be up to me. I understand how the theory improves upon classic compatiblism by showing that the absence of external constraint is not sufficient for freedom. But it is unclear to me how second order desires or volitions are genuinely up to me if they are causally necessitated by the relevant laws of nature and background conditions. Can any form of compatiblism, however sophisticated, survive the scrutiny of hard determinism?

You wrote, "But it is unclear to me how second order desires or volitions are genuinely up to me if they are causally necessitated by the relevant laws of nature and background conditions." Recall that, for compatibilists, how I act can in the relevant sense be up to me even if how I act is necessitated by the laws of nature and the prior conditions. If you grant compatibilists that much, then they're likely to say, "Why can't my second-order desires or volitions also be up to me, in the relevant sense, even if they're necessitated by the laws of nature and the prior conditions? Causal necessitation doesn't prevent those from being up to me any more than it prevents my actions from being up to me."

Which invites the question you closed with: "Can any form of compatibilism, however sophisticated, survive the scrutiny of hard determinism?" The jury's of course still out on that one. But the more I think about the relation between freedom and determinism, the more it seems to me that determinism isn't the enemy of freedom (and indeterminism isn't the friend) that we might have thought it was. Perhaps we'll end up concluding that indeterminism really never did play a role in our ordinary concept of freedom, a conclusion that would dispense with hard determinism once and for all.