Thursday, October 09, 2014

Can we have free will and an omniscient God?

This is a fascinating and long debated idea. Except for a very few people on this planet, I think the concept of why there is a problem with these two ideas co-existing sits a bit over the heads of most people. I hope I can make the ideas a little easier to understand and share my own views about it.

So what is free will?
I'd like to use the concept of divine free will which means that somehow God gave man the ability to make choices outside of pure cause and effect relationships. For example, if I punch you, you don't automatically punch me back. You in-fact choose whether you want to punch me back or not and do so accordingly. However, as we learn more about our biology we can start to trace the cause effect relationships in much finer details and sometimes what appears to be free will may actually be a cause and effect relationship in the biology of our brains. That is to say, that if we knew our brains were in a particular state and we also know everything about how the brain works then one could determine what choice that brain will make with absolute certainty. If this is true, then we don't have divine free will, we are just slaves to our biology. People call this biological predeterminism.
   On the other hand, if you knew everything about a brain and still the choice that that brain makes is still uncertain, then I consider that free will. Despite the biological or chemical state of mind, the choices made are independent of them. They don't have to be 100% independent (if you take happy drugs, then you tend to make happy choices) but so long as its not 100% influenced by it then you don't have biological predeterminism. This biological predeterminism creates the illusion of free will not actual free will.
  Divine free will, then should be the absence of all predeterminism in the choices you make. Nothing that happens before your choice should have complete control over what choice is made.

Omniscience is knowing everything, but most importantly (for our discussion) it is having perfect knowledge of the future. It's not enough to know what "might" happen. One must know what "will" happen with absolute certainty. To know the future with certainty, one must know the outcomes of all free-will choices from all points in time prior to that future. Otherwise, the future would not play out as foreseen (and thus there would not be perfect knowledge of the future).

So what's the problem?
Let's go back to our biological predeterminism example. If you recall, if we knew everything about our brains and can determine with with 100% success what choice will be made, then we don't have free will. If only person A can predict the brain of person B with 100% accuracy, then person B has no free will. He will always be a slave to biological predeterminism. Person A can be anybody as long as its somebody with the power to do the prediction. Additionally, Person A need not use knowledge of the brain to make the prediction. Any knowledge, that guarantees a prediction proves that some form of predeterminism is taking place, thus it is not free will. So to complete the picture, suppose God is person A and he uses his perfect knowledge of the future to predict what person B will choose, then person B has no free will. And if person B is every person, then we can conclude that no person has free will.

False Objections
The seemingly logical conclusions that I'm providing have been challenged by a couple ill-fated attempts. In the end I'll present my most compelling reason why these 2 concepts can logically co-exist. However it's good to also debunk many of these weak arguments otherwise they will just get repeated here. (See wikipedia link: Argument from free will)

  • Redefining "Free will" - The argument is that free will is only the freedom from coercion. In a sense, it is the idea that God will get out of the way of man's attempt to make choices. So long as God does not interfere in the process then man has free will. I think this redefinition only serves to undermine the real essence of what divine free will is. This definition is so loose that practically everything has free will: humans, animals, computers, programs, rocks, and dirt all would have free will. This provides no real satisfaction for those who want to believe that free will is any sort of divine gift to mankind. Additionally, this redefinition does nothing to negate predeterminism from the human free will. It's perfectly okay for humans to be slaves to their biological processes, and the conditions that lead up to that biological state. This poses a critical problem for a God that is both omniscient and that created the universe. This is because at the point of creation, human choice will be governed by the initial state of the universe, which if designed by God would mean that it was God's choice, not man's. To make this easier to understand, imagine if the universe was a table full of dominoes standing on their edges. To start time in this universe God simply knocks over the first domino and initiates the chain reaction. If you could see this table, you could probably guess what the pattern would look like after all the dominoes have fallen. An omniscient god however, would know for certain how and when each domino would fall. Similarly, God could rearrange the dominoes in any pattern and still he would know exactly how that would affect the outcome of each and every domino. Now let's look at a single domino, one near the end of the chain reaction. Even though God doesn't directly cause it to fall over one way or another (no coercion), it still can't help but to fall based on the physical laws that govern it. In this case do consider the domino to have free will? More importantly, who's will do we see the domino taking? I would say that the domino fall is chosen by the person who placed the domino and the dominoes preceding it. Now suppose we replace the dominoes with people and things and the physical laws with all the laws that govern the universe. The people and thing's choices would still be governed by the laws of the universe and hence their choices are ultimately decided by the God that provided the initial state of the universe. Note: I know it seems like a big leap to compare humans to dominoes, but this is essentially what predeterminism is. If I can tell by what state your brain is at this moment (lets call now T0) what choice you will make in the next second (lets call that T+1), then I need only recreate your brain and the universe in that same exact state to "make" you choose the same choice. Now lets say that I also know that if your brain was in a particular state one second before "now" (T-1) then it would naturally change state to match what it is now (T0). So this means I can also recreate your brain and the rest of the universe at the state of T-1 and still get you to pick the same choice at T+1. Now imagine that I simply repeated this process, I could recreate the state at T-2 and still you'd make the same choice at T+1. Do this again for T-3 and so on. I could actually keep repeating this until the beginning of time and no matter what, you will always make the same choice at T+1. So if God creates everything at the beginning of time knowing that you have no choice but to make the same decision at T+1, are you expressing free will or God's will? This is why if we allow predeterminism, then people become dominoes.
  • Redefining "Omniscience" - There seems to be two prevailing arguments that attempt to redefine "Omniscience". One is that God only knows all that is possible for God to know. I find this a bit weak. This equates to defining omniscience as "that which God knows" (hopefully you see the problem with that logic). The other argument is that God knows all the possible outcomes of as a result of all our future free will choices, but does not know which choice we will make. Unfortunately, allowing omniscience to include not knowing something is contradictory.
  • "God is outside of time" - The claim is that my logic relies on time and God exists outside of our construct of time and is able to perceive all moments of time simultaneously. This argument is flawed because, regardless of how God perceives time he still perceives all of it, and all of it perfectly. Still no person can choose to do anything different from what God perceives they will do. Lets revisit our table lined with dominos metaphor. God could start our time by knocking over the first domino, starting a chain reaction. He knows even before starting the chain reaction (start of our time) what is going to happen. Every domino will fall a particular way known to him. Also imagine that God could even fast forward or rewind back time so he could see any point in time of this tabletop domino universe. No matter how many times he rewinds and plays back in our time, the same results happen. Thus we have still have no real choice, despite God being clearly outside "our time".
Wait there is a way!
So far, I have shown that omniscience and free will cannot coexist especially if our choices are the result of predeterminism. However today as a result of quantum physics, we know that the universe is not a completely predeterministic system. That is to say that at some level I can recreate the state of something and at a future date, no matter what instruments or knowledge that I have right now, I will never have the ability to predict its future with absolute certainty (See double-slit experiment). The very act of knowing enough to predict changes the outcome so as to prevent the initial prediction from occuring. This is very important to understand. The laws of the universe are literally preventing us least from complete physical predeterminism. So let's suppose that there's something in our brains that functions like quantum particles and its this non-deterministic system that is the root of our free will. We could then conclude that we are not subject to biological predetermination. However this doesn't quite let us off the hook just yet. We haven't eliminated all forms of predetermination. An omniscient God would still know how the quantum elements of our brains would behave and thus we would still make the same choices accordingly.What we need is a way for us to not be forced into a particular choice, yet allow God to still know what one choice we will make. How can we accommodate these two seemingly incompatible ideas?

Many Worlds
Coincidentally, quantum physics has another solution to this problem. All this time we have been assuming that there is only one universe and only one timeline of events that will unfold. This may seem the case in our point of view, but we must remember that God could easily exist in a completely different point of view, just like our table of dominoes. The dominoes only experience what has happened to them in the past. They would be oblivious to any other arrangement of dominos, however God would be fully aware of all other arrangements that he had made. So to bridge our logical dilemma, what if God could be omniscient of 2 universes: one where you made choice #1 and another where you made choice #2? In a sense, you have simultaneous chosen both options even if those options are mutually exclusive in a single universe (throw a punch/don't throw a punch). In quantum physics, there is a theory, known as the Many Worlds Interpretation, which states that when you reach a point where a quantum choice is made, the universe splits into however many possible choices where each universe is the result of one of those choices. This fits perfectly with what we want. Instead of God having omniscience of a definitive single universe and timeline, he has omniscience of every universe and every timeline. Our assumption that our future has a single timeline is what makes free will and omniscience seem incompatible. Is this really free will or just the illusion of one? I would have to say yes this is real free will, in that the only prediction that is made is that you will make all choices and you were never constrained to make only one of them.

What does this all mean? Is there a god or not?
From a philosophical standpoint, I hope this gets you to think about things you haven't thought about before. Is Many Worlds the solution that God uses to solve this dilemma? Who knows? It would be a pretty elegant one if it was. Does God exist? I don't know either and I don't think this essay shows one way or another. I'm only exposing a possibility which is logically compatible with what we know today.