Omniscience and Free Will

I’ve been teaching my Intro Philosophy students about supposed proofs of God’s existence, and the problem of evil, and it dawned on me (years later than it should have) that those wanting to reconcile free will with God’s existence have a rather intractable problem with one aspect of God that is generally taken to be inarguable: God is omniscient; that is, God knows everything (or, if you want to be a little more wishy-washy about things: God can know everything — he needn’t necessarily know something until he wants to know it).

If I’m right, theists have two options here: Give up the notion that God is omniscient; give up the notion that we have free will. Neither is a comfortable position for most theists.

What I’m Going to Eat for Lunch

Let’s assume that God, as per most religious beliefs, is omniscient — he knows everything. If this is true, then God knows what I’m about to eat for lunch. If he knows what I’m about to eat for lunch, then there’s a fact of the matter about what I’m going to eat for lunch — that is, if he knows what I’m going to eat for lunch, then he can’t be fooled about it. If God knows I’m going to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, then I will eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch — I can’t suddenly change my mind and eat a veggie burger, because God would’ve seen that one coming from a mile away. That is, if I were going to eat a veggie burger, God, being omniscient, must have known I was going to do so.

Do you see the problem here, for free will? I’d like to be able to say that I can change my mind about my lunch — i.e., that I have a genuine choice in the matter of what I will eat for lunch. I’d like, in other words, to say that I have free will about my lunch choice. (Indeed, the word “choice” presupposes that there is free will involved here.) But if I appear to change my mind, this can’t be a genuine choice in a universe with an omniscient God. No matter how many decisions I appear to make on the subject of my lunch, God knows the end result. And if God knows the end result, then there is no choice in the matter — my lunch has been predetermined somehow.

Even if we take the squishier position that God doesn’t necessarily know what I’m going to eat for lunch — his omniscience is of the variety where he could know about my lunch if he wanted to — we run into the same problem for free will. If God could know what I’m going to eat for lunch, it follows that there is still a fact of the matter about it. If he could know that I’m going to eat peanut butter and jelly, then it is the case that I will eat peanut butter and jelly, and thus I don’t possess genuine free will here.

Determinism: The Home Game

If you still think that an omniscient God would allow for free will, play along with me and see if you get my point…

Me: God is omniscient, right?
You: Yup, that’s what they tell me.
Me: So God knows what you’re going to have for lunch, right?
You: Yes, that follows.
Me: Can you change your mind about what you’re going to have for lunch?
You: It sure seems like I can. When it hits noon, I get unpredictable!
Me: So let’s say I’m tight with God, and I get him to write down your choice of lunch for me in a sealed envelope.
You: Okay.
Me: What were you just thinking you’d have for lunch?
You: I was thinking of a huge cheeseburger from Joe’s Diner.
Me: Oh, I heard that they just got cited for making their burgers out of rat parts and feces.
You: Gross! Okay, I’m changing my mind. I’m going to make myself a salad.
Me: [opening God’s envelope] Indeed, that’s just what God wrote down.
You: So it was predetermined the whole time!
Me: Yup. You didn’t really have a choice in the matter.