“Free will, it is a bitch.”
And yet, Judaism also believes in an omniscient God – a god who knows everything past, present, and future. If so, how can you really be said to have the free will to choose between good and evil if God knows what you will choose in advance? Hasn’t your “choice” been preordained? After all, you must necessarily do what God knows you will, else God’s knowledge would be incorrect, and therefore not omniscient.
I struggled with this problem for nearly as long as I can remember. Whether I was pestering my Hebrew teachers in elementary school or discussing it over beer with rabbis in Jerusalem, the answer was always the same and always unsatisfying. God, they said, was “above time.” He does not know what choice you will make before you make it; for him, there is no “before.” We, as temporal beings, could not possibly comprehend such timelessness.
For years, I grudgingly accepted this argument as a plausible solution to the contradiction. At least, that was until I was introduced to the idea of a worldline.
My honors program required a special upper-division physics class. The class was infamous – a lecture hall full of liberal arts-minded kids thrown headlong into a world of quantum mechanics and relativity. Although the math was substantially toned down for us, Physics for Poets it was not. And in beating my brain against the theories of Einstein, I realized that taking God out of time was no solution at all. In fact, it only worsened the contradiction.
My rabbis were wrong: we can understand what it means to be above time. All it takes is the right conceptual tools and a little imagination. Time and space, teaches modern physics, are just different dimensions of a unified entity we call “spacetime.” A “worldline” is the trajectory of an object through spacetime, and can be modeled using a “space-time diagram.” Here’s how they work:
The temporal dimension is represented on one axis of a coordinate system. Spatial dimensions are represented on the other axes. Although any number of spatial dimensions can be modeled, I find it easiest to use only one (especially since I’m not even going to attempt to draw a four-dimensional picture with MS Paint…). What we see here are two beings, A and B, hanging out in one-dimensional space. A’s worldline is vertical – he is moving through time, but not space. In other words, he is standing still. B, on the other hand, begins moving away from A, and then moves back towards him.
From our one-dimensional friends’ point of view (reference frame, if you want to get technical), everything depicted happens sequentially, that is, in time. A sees B move away from him before he sees B move back:
We, however, have what you could call a “God’s-eye-view” of their entire world – we see everything that happens at once. It is not that we know that B will return to A “before” it happens, we are above time; while A and B experience one-dimensional movement in time, we see their entire two-dimension worldlines. For purposes of this tiny world, we are omniscient. Visualize tacking on a couple more spatial dimensions, and you get to the perspective God is coming from.
So what does this mean for free will?
According to Jewish thinking, God creates the world at every instant. We can now put this in more elegant terms: God creates worldlines. However, we can also see a few much deeper conflicts between omniscience and free will. Consider the worldlines of Adam and Eve:
Once we look at the story from an omniscient perspective, the problem here is no longer that God has foreknowledge that Adam will eat the apple. Instead, the problem is that God created Adam’s entire worldline, from T1 to T2, and every point in between. In other words, God created a complete trajectory in spacetime that included Adam’s sin!
But let’s assume for a second that Adam somehow retains his independence, that he somehow “chose” his trajectory while God just watched. Unfortunately, this only makes the problem worse. God, being omnipotent, had the option to create two possible Adams, alike in every respect but one: an Adam who would “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he ate the apple, and an Adam who “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he didn’t (call him “Shmadam”).
God created Adam instead of Shmadam, knowing fully well which trajectory either would take. He created an Adam whose worldline followed a direction he disapproved of, who would violate his only command. How can we possibly say that Adam really had a choice in the matter when God chose his worldline over Shmadam’s? He never stood a chance.
In the legal world, we find no difficulty in holding people liable for the reasonably foreseeable acts of others. For example, under the theory of “negligent entrustment,” if you give a raving, angry, and visibly intoxicated man a loaded handgun, you may be liable for any injuries he causes. Can we hold an omniscient God to a lesser standard? Or, is the First Cause somehow less than proximate?