Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Few More Points on Omniscience, World-lines, and Free Will

I’d like to clarify and respond to a couple of themes from the comments to my last post before I move on:

Comparing God’s choice of creating one of two alternate worldlines to negligent entrustment

My basic thought here was to try and show that, even if Adam had the “choice” whether or not to eat the apple, God is still responsible. Since we often hold people liable for their role in enabling the reasonably foreseeable acts of others, this sort of reasoning should apply a fortiori when the entity in question is outside of time – that is, omniscient. I realize the analogy is not perfect, but I think it is a compelling normative argument against allowing using “free will” to simply absolve God of responsibility for the actions of his creations.

Omniscience and the Nature of Time

I think that using space-time diagrams as a tool to understand omniscience demonstrates at least one key point, but it’s kind of difficult to really “get” – I know I spent countless hours pondering it before really understanding the idea. When you are outside of time, and looking at it as simply another dimension, your experience of temporality is necessarily very different than it would be for a being in time. For you, there is no more serious difference between “before” and “after” than there would be between “left” and “right.”

Consider looking at shelf full of books. All of the books exist simultaneously for you, regardless of whether it is the rightmost or leftmost book on shelf. The basic spatial relation here, “left” or “right,” is just a way for you to describe the relative position of a given book (or set of books). No book has any sort of ontological priority over another because of it’s position – they are all already there.

Time is no different when you are outside of it. In the limited world of the Adam diagram, because you are outside of time, you see every moment of Adam’s existence at once. “Before” and “after” simply describe relative positions on the vertical axis. From your perspective, Adam is eating the apple “at the same time” as he is being created. You could say that he was “always” eating the apple, even though he will only experience it at the point in the upper-right-hand portion of the diagram.

It’s hard to get into this mode of thinking unless you’ve really thought about the concept of dimensionality. Even as we look at this limited two-dimensional world, we are still experiencing a temporal dimension of our own, and it can be tough to abstract out to higher dimensions. However, if you haven’t had the opportunity to take a class involving 4-D geometry and are interested in exploring, I highly recommend Flatland, by A.E. Abbott.

The Point

I think that the ideas of an omniscient God and individual free will are hopelessly contradictory. God, after all, does not simply watch what happens; he sets it up, in one way or another. After all, part of the reason people typically entertain a god-belief is as an explanation for that Big Question, Where did everything come from?

When I take the basic theological premises that Judaism has given me as true, I find that I am repelled by the idea of a God who stacks the deck and then blames the players who fold. I will not do teshuva (repent) for God’s sins. Even if I believed in God, I would not worship him.

Personally, I do not believe in free will – at least as in terms of what people usually mean when they talk about it. I think that the concept is hollow because there is nothing to be free from (hence no “un-free will” either). That, however, is a post for another time.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you are entitled to your own beliefs about God - and the fact that they markedly differ from mine is what makes me so interested in what you have to say - but I still think you need to be a little more honest.

Your problem, seemingly, is not with omniscience and free will coexisting. Your problem is actually with the interplay between omnipotence and free will. That is definitely the more difficult philosophical question: if God is all-powerful, and pulling all the strings, then how do we have free will to do what we want? Is the fact that I am sitting at my desk reading your blog instead of studying for the bar my fault, or is it "God's fault?"

Knowledge is not the same as power in most cases. I may well know that Hezbollah is going to fire rockets into Israel tonight, but that certainly does not mean that I can stop them. In God's case, however, it seems to me that your issue is that God should prevent us from making the wrong decisions.

However, if you believe that bad things happen for a reason, and often a pedagogical one, it does seem to lessen the conflict between the two. Which is not at all to say that it isn't a valid conflict often truly solved only through faith.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 3:18:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

I disagree, with the poster of the comments above.

Either God has the fore-knowledge that Adam will eat the apple or he does not have that knowledge.

If God does have the knowledge and knows that Adam will eat the apple, then there exists a future time frame in which Adam will eat the apple. Since it is going to happen in the future there would be no way to change it or else God would not have the knowledge of what is going to happen.

Thus, Adam is never free. Even if God literally is not intervening, there is a particular future that Adam has to choose and has no choice but to eat the apple. Additionally, God created Adam such that he would eat the apple.

Since the future is already been determined and God created Adam such that he chose this path. God is to blame for Adam eating the apple, not Adam.

If you were to claim God was not omnisceint this would not be an issue.
But the claim of omniscience implies Adam never had free will.

One could also claim that God is beyond our conception. Which would be a fair claim, except if God is beyond our mind we would be unable to say anything about God, not to mention if God exists.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 5:17:00 PM  
Anonymous tRJ said...

The comparison to a bookshelf brings up the crucial issue for me. There would indeed be a fundamental difference between how an omniscient, "outside-time" being would see time and how a being operating "inside time" would experience it. And therein lies the key to reconciling free will and omniscience.

For God, he would see the full run of Adam's life, start to finish. At key moments, God knows Adam will make a certain decision, moving forever toward the known end.

But to Adam, inside time, the choice still exists. Yes, a truly omniscient being knows what Adam will choose. But that's not because he has denied Adam the right to choose but because he sees all the choices at once. The outcome of every decision, one made freely by Adam, is already known. But Adam still chooses freely.

Friday, July 21, 2006 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger lawsomnia said...

If was this line of reasoning that caused me a lot of problems.

An omniscient and omnipotent entity is liable for all of its actions (since all is foreseen and under its control). All the good and all the evil in the world is a result of its act of creating the world.

Any claims of justice in punishing the entities it creates for their "behavior" is a contradiction in terms-- it is like punishing a wind-up toy for marching across the table.

Whether the wind-up toy chooses to march is irrelevant--it cannot help but act in that fashion, even if from its internal point of view it isn't aware of the restraints.

The contradiction for me was that such an entity, although omnipotent and omniscient, could not be "just" from our p.o.v., and we cannot conform to justice from its p.o.v.

I am unwilling to accept that conclusion.

Sunday, July 23, 2006 6:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'll get back to you after the bar; i used to share your sentiment

Monday, July 24, 2006 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or is there a meaningful distinction between truly choosing and thinking you are choosing when in fact you have no choice?
-J

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 7:11:00 AM  

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