The Logical Problem of Omniscience

The problem of omniscience is usually formulated about whether human being’s having free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge of our actions. The basic problem is that God know what we will do before we do it which means that it must be true that we perform this action before we actually perform it (knowledge is factive). But if it is already true then how could I do otherwise? If I do in fact have freedom and do otherwise then it seems that I have the power to cause one of God’s beliefs to be false; but that is impossible. God is essentially omniscient and so only has true beliefs. Plantinga famously responded that we can solve this problem by thinking about possible world semantics. Let us suppose that in the actual world I freely choose to drink a Lemon iced tea instead of a peach iced tea on Friday December 11th 2009 at 1145 a.m. Let’s call this T2. Given God’s omniscience then we must suppose that He knew that would perform this action even before my birth. Let’s just pick a date, say October 31st 2008, and call this T1. Then God knows at T1 that I will choose lemon tea at T2. Now the reason Plantinga sees no problem here is because there is a possible world where I freely chose to have the peach tea (call it W2)  and in that possible world God knows that I will choose peach tea at T2. So the basic idea is that had I chosen differently God would have a different belief and so we could say that the true belief that God does hold in the actual world would be false in W2 but that doesn’t mean that God has a false belief in the actual world. So, I am free (i.e. there is a possible world where I do otherwise and so it is not necessary that I have lemon tea) and God is still omniscient. Pike’s response to this argument is basically to complain about Plantinga’s analysis of freedom. The question is not whether or not there is some possible world or other where I do otherwise and God knows that I do otherwise. The question is whether or not given the actual world as it is, is there a possible world with exactly the same history as the actual world in which I do otherwise? If there is then God has a false belief in that world because in that world God believes at T1 that I will have lemon tea at T2 but we have just said that in this world I have peach tea at T2. On the other hand if there is no such possible world then it was not really in my power to do otherwise after all. To appreciate the point that Pike is making here we can point out that even the determinist can admit that there is a possible world where I “chose” to have peach tea at T2. It is, of course, not in the subset of possible worlds that have the same history as our world (or our universe for that matter) but surely we can conceive of different subsets with different histories (e.g. possible worlds where the initial force of the big bang is different or in which there is an extra molecule, ungrounded in Kripke’s sense, that effects the outcome of the universe’s history) and so there merely being some other possible world where I have peach tea instead of lemon tea at T2 cannot be what we mean when we say that I am free. We must mean that there is a possible world that is near enough in the space of possible worlds to the actual world such that I could bring it about. And as we have seen it is not obvious that this is possible since in all the possible worlds that are near enough God knows that I will have lemon tea. I find this response very convincing (and I now think that my earlier attempts at this were groping in this direction)

So much then for the traditional problem of omniscience. However, it occurred to me recently that there is, besides this traditional problem, a further problem which we might call ‘the logical problem of omniscience’ on analogy with the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of omniscience suggests that there is a contradiction in the claim that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect and has free will. This is a more pressing problem because it threatens to show that belief in an omniscient God with free will is itself an irrational belief. The contradiction arises because included in God’s foreknowledge is knowledge of what His own choices and actions will be. So if God chooses to destroy  Sodom at noon on Wednesday 1400 B.C (*Note: This is a made up arbitrary date!*) then it must have been the case the He knew that He would so choose and so knew that He would destroy Sodom at that time on that date. But if God knew this at T0 (say before he created Adam) then how could He have chosen differently in 1400 B.C.? But then either God is not omniscient or he does not have free will neither of which is acceptable.

18 thoughts on “The Logical Problem of Omniscience

  1. Hi L Zoel, thanks for the question. The traditional reason for thinking this comes from considerations about God’s agency. If He creates something at a time then it seems as though His action must have occurred at that time; perhaps it is some meta-time and so different from ours (one day for God=1,000 of our years kind of stuff). But even if you don’t agree with this there are enough people who do to make the argument in the post interesting.

    Though I admit it would be nice to be able to show that there is a problem if one thinks He is timeless…can you say a bit about what you take that to mean?

  2. Hi Richard,

    I can’t speak for L Zoel, but I would say that God is timeless just in case God is neither before, nor after, nor simultaneous with anything. And I think that if Pike’s argument is successful if God is temporal, then a modified version is successful even if God is timeless. For even if God timelessly believes that you drink lemon tea at t2, it is nevertheless *true at t1* that God timelessly believes that you drink lemon tea at t2. So any possible world with the same history as ours will include the fact that it is true at t1 that God timelessly believes that you drink lemon tea at t2. And if it is true at t1 that God timelessly believes that you drink lemon tea at t2, it follows that God timelessly believes that you drink lemon tea at t2. And since whatever God (timelessly) believes is true, it is true that you drink lemon tea at t2. So whether God is temporal or not, if Pike’s argument is sound, the fact that you drink lemon tea at t2 is guaranteed by what is true at t1.

  3. Hi Jason, nice to hear from you!

    I like this line of argument, and I think it is easy to extend it from Pike’s argument to the logical problem of omniscience. Ig God timelessly believes that he will destroy Sodom on Wednesday 1400 B.C. and if so you get the contradiction with free will

  4. Isn’t this more the logical problem of ‘libertarian free will’* than the logical problem of omniscience?

    Ie “given all the facts about me (eg my ‘spirit’ and the physical facts) I could have chosen differently”
    seems self contradictory because I’ve already held constant everything that is me. I don’t even need anyone (eg a god) to actually know what those constants are for that to be a problem.

    * or whatever we want to call this concept

  5. Hi GNZ,

    I don’t think it is a problem with the libertarian notion of free will per se. It is supposed to be precisely the point that we could hold all of the facts constant and yet I still could have chosen differently. The problem is that God knows them and so they must be true already…though it is true that any theory that has it that statements about the future are true in the past will have this kind of problem.

    But the problem I am trying to point to is one about God’s very nature NOT about freewill in general or about our having free will. God’s knowledge of his own free actions makes it the case that they can’t be free and that entails a contradiction since if God exists it is as a morally free being. This suggests that it is Contradictory to hold that God has free will and omniscience.

  6. And still the concept seems either self contradictory or empty.

    If you are able to ‘choose’ differently based on no facts and with no reference to what you intended….. aside from sounding impossible it sounds like being insane.

    Would not one would want to say “I have free will because I could have chosen differently IF I wanted to” (as opposed to alternatives like “I could have chosen differently if someone else wanted me to”) taking some component of the individual/god out of the set of things that we are fixing.

  7. No one said that there is no reference to intentions or facts. The claim is merely that these things do not cause your action. Usually they are cast as ‘reasons’ or ‘influences’ but the choice is not caused by these things. The way you put it makes you sound like a compatabilist and people like Plantinga reject that view (so I was assuming it was false in the post since I am arguing with those that accept this)…

  8. I think that it might be a good helpful point, echoing Kant’s understanding of the highest moral being, that there can be some beings for which the conflict between inclinations and duty never arise. So, we need to imagine and consider, somewhat, different notions of moral being and freedom while thinking of those sorts of beings. Perhaps the problem is occurring due to the fact that we assimilate the conception of morality and freedom from a human perspective to the conception of morality and freedom of non-human beings…

    • Hi Nazim Gokel, thanks for the comment.

      I am not sure I see what the problem here is supposed to be. I am only assuming that morality is the kind of that binds all rational beings. In fact I think that it is partly constitutive of being fully rational that one recognizes the binding nature of morality (just as no creature could be fully rational who did not recognize Modus Ponens as a valid argument form). So, no being could be fully rational without recognizing the authority of morality. In this respect morality from the human perspective is exactly the same as from any (rational) non-human perspective. Of course we are not perfectly rational beings and so cannot have full grasp of morality but we are good enough to recognize the binding nature of moral rules.

      Let’s suppose that you are right and God has the kind of nature such that there is never a conflict between His inclinations (assuming He has such) and His duties. He would recognize the authority of morality over His will, and since He had no competing inclinations He would have no trouble doing the morally required thing. All that this suggests is that it is easier fro God to always free choose to do the right thing. But the problem I am suggesting still arises. God still knows what He will do before He does it and therefore it must be true that He does it before he does in which case He is not really free and if that is the case the very concept of God is contradictory.

  9. Richard,

    yes I would say I am a compatabilist but I was trying to assume the opposite. Possibly failing since i am already two steps outside this debate including that I think a temporal god seems to not be omnipotent enough.

    Basically, I want to seperate the ‘choice’/’free will’ from all the other facts. (maybe the incompatabilist would just reject this step?)
    To give an example

    1) I was offered a large number of black things and forced to take one and I only ever like to take round things. There were no other influences at all.
    2) I freely chose to take the black round thing made of metal

    therefore my free will choice was “take the metal thing” (as opposed to a wooden one).

    Using that reduction, I want to put every influence in 1 and only free will things in 2. Then look at 2 and see if it is what people seem to think it is.

    • I think I see…so is your point that what we can choose between is limited and then so is our freedom? If so, I used to think similarly but now I see that if one makes that argument one then gets accused of denying morally significant free will. I wonder why morally significant free will is better than non-morally significant free will, but that is another issue…

  10. Richard,

    I’m not convinced by that because I think that the thing they have ‘uncovered’ that they want to use for morally significant free will, when you look closer, doesn’t appear to be morally significant…

    They want to tie ‘moral score’ – freewill – me. But I when I look closely their definition of free will seems to have broken the freewill-me link. It is more like talking about impersonal quantum mechanic randomness.

    So I imagine Plantinga waiting to assend to heaven in the end time and suddenly realising he is staring up at his free-will spirit and that despite everything ‘he’ wasn’t going anywhere.

  11. Hi Richard,
    There was a specific reason behind my insight that we need to consider the conceptions of morality and freedom from somewhat, if possible, from non-human perspective other than the only practical implication that since there are no inclinations and feelings for God as an obstacle before his moral actions, it is reasonable to suggest that it will be very easy for God to act morally. I understand the power of your argument and the gravity of the problem. I do not remember now whether you mentioned this, but there is another way to arrive the same conclusion:
    1. God is omniscient. 2. God is a free being. 3. God is a moral being (by his very nature). That is to say, God is bounded to be moral being. 4. If someone is bounded to act only Fs (moral actions), then he is not free. Therefore, God is not free. I hope I did not mess up here. Anyway,it seems to me that we need to find what has been causing this problem. I would like to consider questions like ‘What it is like to be a being who lacks inclinations, feelings?’ ‘What does God know when we say everything?’ ‘In a Kierkegaardian sense, can we think of God who transcend our forms of thought and generates paradoxes of faith?’ ‘What was it like to be a God in the absence of everything except his only presence and what happened after he decided to create Universe, and did he know himself in the absence of objects of perception?’ I do not have any answers for these questions, they just prompt me to think that something strange is happening while we begin thinking properties of God. For instance, while thinking of morality, we generally think of moral duties for human beings and moral agents as following these duties in their actions; but for God there is no conception of duty according to Kant’s philosophy. It is his nature to act morally… Do we have different senses of morality here? What is the notion of morality for God since he does not live in a community of rational beings in which he will be regarded as responsible for his actions? These sorts of questions are really very puzzling, at least for my mind…

  12. Another way of looking at the problem is that it was from God’s infallibility. He cannot have a false belief. If right now I have it in my power to do other than I do, and God 1 million years ago believed that I would do what I do, then I have it in my power to make a monkey out of God. Well, you can’t make a monkey out of God.

    It doesn’t follow that I cannot do other, however. What follows is that, if I can do other, then I have the power to change God’s past belief–to make it the case that he never believed what in fact he always did believe. Well, I think that’s thinkable. On the other hand, doesn’t it give me power over God’s mind, power to change God himself? And how can I have such power, poor little old me? The response is that God loves us and wants us to have free will and so gives us that power. This is a very Christian God who makes himself vulnerable for our sake.

    Another difficulty is this (from the literature). Suppose I decide to shoot Smith and so I invite him to lunch. God, knowing what I will do, tells Smith to wear a bulletproof vest. So there I am at lunch with Smith who is in fact wearing a bulletproof vest– though I don’t know it. Suppose I have it in my power not to shoot Smith. Then I have it in my power to make it the case that God always believed I wouldn’t shoot Smith. Therefore I have it in my power to make it the case that Smith, who was sitting across from me wearing a bullet proof vest, isn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. So I have miraculous and paradoxical powers.

    Two responses: one is that God simply doesn’t tell Smith to wear a bulletproof vest. He doesn’t get involved in the world on the basis of what he knows we will freely choose to do. This is part of the price he pays for our free will. The second response is to bite the bullet and say, okay, I do have the power to make it the case that Smith, who is wearing a bulletproof vest, isn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. That’s pretty remarkable but not unthinkable, and as I never will, in fact, do other than what God believes I will do, I will never exercise any such power.

  13. I’d like to just say no where do I find the idea that God knows everything that is going to happen to me or every choice I am going to make. Yes God knows the beginning from the end, but I see that as God knows or knew how he was going to bring in the physical creation and how he was going to test it and finally bring it to an end as he purposed it to be. According to his “blueprint” if you will. From what I view in scripture God does not know exactly what I will choose until I actually choose. He knows what he’d like for me to chose but what I actually do chose he leaves up to me, therein l am blessed or cursed in regards to my choice I decide to do or not do.
    Moses stood up to God when the Israelis made the golden calf and worshiped it as God, God was going to destroy all them and start over with Moses but Moses talked him out of it. Exodus 32:9-14
    Or how about the tower of Babel? It is stated that God came down to see what that was all about. Genesis 11:4-8
    Or how about Abraham told to kill his only son Isaac? God wanted to see if Abraham would fear and love God enough that if God commanded Abraham to kill his only son would Abraham do it? God did not actually know if Abraham would kill his only son right up to the point of Abraham plunging the knife into Isaac when God saw that Abraham was actually going to carry out God’s command and kill his only son as God commanded him to do God stopped him from killing Isaac. God told Abraham it was a test and NOW God knew Abraham feared him and would obey him always. Genesis 22:12
    Genesis 18:20-21 God had gotten reports about Sodom and Gomorrah and he came down to see for himself if the reports were true or not (see Job 1:6;2:1 for how one way God gets info).
    In regards to Job, God was happy with Job and Job’s faith and was blessing the heck out of him until Satan came along and made God test Job out of a challenge Satan made to God. If Satan had not came and made that challenge God would have never tested Job in that manner.
    There are many other instances but you see my point, man has made that dogma up about God knowing everything not God himself. God knows how he will bring earth history to a close according to his plans he made before creation began, God watches us, searches our minds to see our intend, has knowledge perfect of our past history of how we have acted and behaved, but as to how we will decide to go for good or evil in any one instant he chooses not to know and lets us make our decision good or bad then acts according to the decision we have made good or bad, blessing or cursing.
    This goes along with the dogma God can do anything. No he can not do anything! He cannot lie, cheat, steal, commit sin. God cannot nor will not do anything that will make him less God. JMHO

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