Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Infinite Capabilities vs. Free Will

Free will has been the topic of many conversations with believers and nonbelievers I've had in the past.  For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to ignore the secular questions regarding the very existence of free will raised by Sam Harris in his book on the topic.  Rather, I want to concentrate here on the notions of free will in a religious context.  In some earlier writings on the topic, I said:

If the presumed all-knowing (omniscient) being created me, then s/he knows what my choices will be throughout my life, from beginning to end. Thus, it's logically inescapable that s/he created me specifically to make those choices -- and to suffer the consequences for them. Where's free will in that? Sorry, but free will is out of the logical window of plausibility when the creator is omniscient and omnipotent. 

I've had believers who have tried to "explain" free will to me in the following way:  They say that their infinitely capable deity wants me to accept him of my own free will, rather than having created me to believe in him from the very moment of conception.  This deity doesn't want to be worshiped by programmed robots, they say.

Unfortunately, this sort of reasoning fails to explain why a being capable of creating an entire universe from nothing even needs to be worshiped.  That's a crucial issue, isn't it?  Do we demand that amoebae sing songs of praise to us?  Should the ants be building churches to glorify us?  If we made robots in our own image, would we program them to kneel in our presence?  We love our pets because they give us an unqualified form of affection, but I don't believe that affection would fit the definition of "worship" in a religious sense - their interactions with other creatures (including humans) are the result of evolutionary programming for survival.  What sort of colossal vanity is required for an infinite being to require the worship of his puny finite creations?  Sounds more like a "cult of personality" dictator (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, etc.) to me!

I suppose, superficially, this argument does seem to offer a "sort of" escape hatch rationalization for why we're required to make our own personal choices to accept the deity.  It fails completely to explain the inescapable logic quoted above, nevertheless.  But allow me to try again, coming at this from the reverse direction.  Suppose for the moment that this hypothetical deity does indeed want me to make my own choice to accept him (or not).  I can only speculate on why this supreme being has forced this choice on me.  Perhaps it's indeed because he understands that the worship of someone  forced to worship means absolutely nothing.  I know that most sane humans (excluding "cult of personality" dictators, for instance) understand that forced praise means no praise at all.  This seems to be a very human understanding, not something necessarily divine.

If the deity knows what my choice is going to be (he's supposed to be omniscient, of course), then since he created me, he knew from the very instant he chose to create me that I would choose not to believe in him, dooming me to eternal torment (or whatever).  Is it infinitely benevolent to make me suffer for what amounts to a flaw in his creation (i.e., me and my choice to be an atheist)?  If he doesn't know what my choice will be, then he can't be omniscient.  If he wants me to choose to believe in him but he can't make me do it (for whatever reason), then he can't be omnipotent. 

The religious notion of free will is logically incompatible with a deity's infinite capabilities.  You can either believe the deity has infinite capabilities, in which case free will has to be abandoned - or you can have free will, in which case the capabilities of the deity are necessarily finite.  

As I mentioned in my earlier writings, a belief in infinite anything creates all sorts of logical issues for believers.  Infinity might mean one thing to ignorant barbarians in the late Bronze Age, but our modern understanding of the concept of infinity (as in mathematics) makes us realize that an infinitely capable being is surely nothing more than an abstraction - a myth created by humans to serve our own purposes.  If we want to hang on to the notion of free will, the assumed infinite capabilities of the being supposedly responsible for "creating" us must be discarded in favor of merely finite capabilities.


Will Ross said...


I agree that "infinite" probably meant something rather different to ignorant (or even quite wise and knowledgeable) Bronze Age barbarians. It's probably best not to get too hung up on the infinity thing.

I'm not sure I follow your fundamental point on free will, though. I'd have thought that free will would be affected by whether your future actions can be known (by God or anyone else) or not. If not, they fall outside the "everything" in God's omniscience. No problem here: move on...

I think that the apologists who use the free will argument to try to answer the problem of pain are trying to differentiate between the power to overcome any physical barrier, which they claim, and the power to overcome logic and the meaning of language, which they do not. So if, as you point out, free will is logically incompatible with wholesale divine intervention, God cannot both fix all our problems and leave us our free will. You might indeed ask why, from our selfish point of view, it matters whether God is omnipotent if he can't act on our behalf. I'd say that it doesn't.

Bottom line: I don't see a problem with omniscience, omnipotence and free will. Benevolence rather depends on your definition, but I suspect that a rigorous definition could be defended.

Another point you might like to consider is the difference between "infinitely powerful" and "all powerful". After all, everything could be either more or less than an infinite thing. More of that pesky poetic language in the Holy Books, I fear...

Incidentally, I rather incline to Sam Harris' view that free will is more of a handy personal viewpoint than a real phenomenon. Though I'm not sure that he's really thought through the ethical consequences of this.

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm having trouble seeing how your "Bottom Line" follows from what precedes it. You've evidently concluded that free will is compatible with infinite capabilities, but offered no clear, logical argument as to why you reached that conclusion.

If "All powerful" doesn't equate to infinite power, then I can't imagine what it might mean. All finite powers, but not the infinite ones? But of course, that's quibbling over verbiage.

If someone's future actions can't be known by this hypothetical deity, then his knowledge is decidedly finite! Such a being apparently has the capability to create an entire universe out of nothing, to be everywhere in the universe at all times, and can even know what all people are thinking at all times ... but for some reason, he can't know anything about the future? Does that sound reasonable to you? Makes no sense to me ...

Is it benevolent for a deity to create a human being with the foreknowledge that this creation of that deity will suffer eternal torment for making a choice not to believe in said deity for lack of tangible evidence? Not in my book! If he doesn't know what that choice will be, then his knowledge is finite ... Q.E.D.

Sam Harris' notions about free will are, as I've indicated, off-topic. Given how new his ideas are, it wouldn't surprise me at all that he (or anyone else) has yet to grasp all their ethical consequences.

Jim Means said...

22A friend of mine used to claim to be an existential behaviorist--he believed that you should make your own decisions, even though you have no control over them. That's the sort of "dual" (in other words, contradictory) thinking that will get you past the apparent contradiction between God and free will.

Maybe God is only omniscient and omnipotent up to the limits set by quantum mechanics, and that is where the free will comes into play.

Chuck Doswell said...


So let me see ... I can have both free will and an infinitely capable being if I'm willing to embrace a contradiction? Sorry ... to do so is illogical. Once I start accepting contradictions, then I might as well concede to religion.

As for a quantum limit to the deity's capabilities ... funny the bible makes no mention of that ... you're evidently trying to "save the appearances" by invoking quantum physics here in a very speculative manner. It's a classic deus ex machina ...

Jim Means said...


Although it was probably no obvious, both of my comments were intended tongue-in-cheek...I can't really understand religious logic either. I wonder, though, if science has similar philosophical problems at its most basic level--I've always suspected that something like Godel's Incompleteness Theorem may apply in physics, too.