Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jim Benton on Divine Free Will

The problem of theodicy means that if you believe in a god, then it can't logically be both omnipotent (all-powerful) and care much about people. Because as we know, a lot of bad shit happens to people. Rationalists see theodicy as a very strong argument that there ain't nobody up there.

Now, guest blogger Jim Benton of Brooklyn, NY has sent me some really good observations on the logical consequences if someone believes in a god that's omniscient (all-knowing).

Prup's Paradox -- God and Free Will
By Jim Benton

No, this isn't about the old questions. Yes, I believe we have free will, or at least have to act as if we believe we do. And yes, I will concede that the believers are right that it is possible to accept free will and an omniscient god -- even though I don't accept the latter.

It's a matter of different "frames of reference". Thus, tomorrow it is possible that PZ Myers would get a donation-seeking letter from a Creationist Institute, Orac would get one from the Institute for Historical Revisionism, and I would get one from the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Each of us would be acting totally "freely" in deciding whether or not to send money. (Yes, our experiences, knowledge and beliefs would affect our choice, because we aren't total "blank slates" but I don't see that this would make our choices unfree.) Yet anyone who knows us would be able to state to a high degree of certainty that we would not send the groups any money. (Anyone who knows me, and my own finances, would know I don't/can't send money even to causes I believe in.) Different frames of reference, no conflict.

No, the question I am raising is different.

Does God -- an omniscient God -- have free will?

Believers talk a lot about the "Will of God". But is this, given what they believe about their own deity, sensible?

Free will is about choices, between two or more courses of action, or between action and non-action. But we are free to make such choices because we don't know the results of our actions.

Thus, I can choose whether to check the "Scratch and Match" card the daily newspaper sends me or not, because I don't know if it is a winning card or not. If I knew, somehow, that it was a winning card, I would be considerably less free to choose not to scratch the numbers off. I can imagine very unlikely situations where I would choose not to, because such an action would not go along with some plan of my life, but they are unlikely.

God -- your favorite monotheistic omniscient deity -- knows, along with everything else, the results of his own actions. And he/she/it/they has a "plan for the Universe." (It isn't reasonable to assume that such a deity is just a spectator, watching to see how things turn out because "he" -- let's make things easy -- knows the answer already.)

But this means that at every "decision point" he knows which choice is the one that will better move this plan to fruition. Answer a prayer, don't answer a prayer, perform a miracle, don't perform a miracle, reveal himself to this Arabian businessman or another one two towns down, cause or don't cause a tsunami. In any of these choices, one is more favorable to the Plan than the other. The difference might be very slight, a matter of the twentieth decimal place (hello Gilbert Gosseyn) but it exists, and God knows it.

Given that, he doesn't have a choice which choice to make. He has to make the choice that favors his plan, unless we see him as totally capricious and insane. But that means he doesn't have free will.

An omniscient god is a pre-programmed automaton, totally helpless, totally unable to change anything, since his choices were made when he first made his creation. In fact, you can argue that the choices were part of the creation, that any omniscient god must be a "deistical" rather than a "theistical" god.

(It is possible to argue, in fact, though I'll save this for another time, that there is no "operational difference" between a deistical god and a self-existent universe, that there is no way of differentiating between them.)

So, the next time a theist argues about the "will of God," just point out that what they are talking about, if he exists, is the Great Robot in the Sky.
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Blogger mugabe said...

What kind of puny omniscient entity has one exclusive original Plan for Everything[tm] and sticks to it at all times?

If you're the Alpha and the Omega, anything you devise for the universe, even in the spur of the moment, will by definition become part of your plan. Cut the guy some slack.

30 August, 2006 22:17  
Anonymous Teudimundo said...

In the case god follows the plan, it could be that
the plan has been freely chosen.

I don't think there is any way to prove that eithe god does not exists or does. I just don't believe in god because I think there are more plausible explanations to what's going on.

31 August, 2006 10:16  
Blogger Karen said...

It's so funny that you wrote about this. There was a similar discussion (although not quite the same) on the Great White Bear's blog. Here's the link if you want to check it out - sorry, I couldn't figure out how to link directly to the post (it's the one from August 18 - Clueless - about 1/2 way through the article).

Personally, I dont' think there is a god although years of being raised Catholic cause me to have a huge amount of guilt about this belief. There is simply no way that "god", or whatever people wish to call it, can be all powerful, all knowing, and all caring which is how christians tend to view him/her/it...

Good post!

31 August, 2006 18:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, if we start with the proposition of an omnipotent God, he can by definition do whatever he likes. It may be possible to reach reductio ad absurbum conclusions from this. But you cannot, again by definition, prove that there is anything an omnipotent entity couldn't do (barring creative re-definitions of the word).

Personally, I don't believe we have a free will. A will, yes (because that's pretty hard to deny), but a free one? No. I find it hard even to comprehend what a free will would be like.


01 September, 2006 13:32  
Blogger Martin said...

Being unable to overview either previous states of the universe or understand exactly how future states come about, we might as well call it free will. At least nobody's around with better information to second-guess us with.

01 September, 2006 19:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely, as a sceptic, you don't want to go around believing stuff just becuase it cannot be disproven?

I'd like extraordinary evidence to believe in such a radical proposition as free will.


01 September, 2006 19:59  
Blogger Martin said...

Think of it as a convention of thought and practice. Everybody knows that the Earth is in orbit around the sun, but still we speak of sunrise.

01 September, 2006 20:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are very wise to come to this conclusion, though one could suggest that God has free will and has already made all the choices that need to be made during creation. Perhaps he no longer exists as a force anymore because all choices were made and he then died. Certainly choice was invloved in order to devise the plan.

I would contend though that, while God MIGHT have free will, we certainly do not!

03 November, 2006 19:54  
Blogger Martin said...

You're right. We have no choice but to act as if most people actually had free will. (-;

04 November, 2006 08:02  

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