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.