Argument from free will

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The argument from free will, also called the paradox of free will or theological fatalism, contends that omniscience and free will are incompatible and that any conception of God that incorporates both properties is therefore inherently contradictory.[note 1][1][2] These arguments are deeply concerned with the implications of predestination.

Omniscience and free will[edit]

If God made the game, its rules, and the players, then how can any player be free?

Some arguments against the existence of God focus on the supposed incoherence of humankind possessing free will and God's omniscience. These arguments are deeply concerned with the implications of predestination.

Moses Maimonides formulated an argument regarding a person's free will, in traditional terms of good and evil actions, as follows:[note 2]

… "Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest 'He knows', then it necessarily follows that [that] man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God's knowledge would be imperfect.…"[3]

Various means of reconciling God's omniscience with human free will have been proposed. Some have attempted to redefine or reconceptualize free will:

  • God can know in advance what I will do, because free will is to be understood only as freedom from coercion, and anything further is an illusion. This is the move made by compatibilistic philosophies.
  • The sovereignty (autonomy) of God, existing within a free agent, provides strong inner compulsions toward a course of action (calling), and the power of choice (election). The actions of a human are thus determined by a human acting on relatively strong or weak urges (both from God and the environment around them) and their own relative power to choose.[4]

Other counterarguments have focused on God's omniscience:

  • Molinism argues that God not only knows the singular outcomes of all our future free choices, but also knows what singular free choices would have eventuated in any possible circumstance. Truths of the latter sort are called "counterfactuals of freedom," and God's knowledge thereof is referred to as his "middle knowledge." This view holds an Ockhamist conception of foreknowlege, in which there are singular truths about what inevitably happens in the future despite the plurality of future contingents which may and may not come to pass. Molinists say that such foreknowlege can't determine such outcomes, because that's not the kind of thing foreknowledge can do.[citation needed]
  • Compatibilistic Calvinism re-defines a free act as one that is done in accordance with one's desires. While this view avoids incoherence, it is arguable that this is the kind of freedom Theists are concerned to reconcile with divine foreknowledge.[citation needed]
  • Open Theism holds that future free decisions are known under the category of possibility, which is their true nature. The problem of freedom and foreknowledge therefore, is due to the traditional theologies of libertarian freedom positing gratuitous knowledge on God's part, which overextends God's settled knowledge to the realm of unsettled possibilities.[citation needed]

A proposition first offered by Boethius[5] and later by Thomas Aquinas[note 3] and C. S. Lewis, suggests that God's perception of time is different, and that this is relevant to our understanding of our own free will. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that God is actually outside time and therefore does not "foresee" events, but rather simply observes them all at once. He explains:

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call "tomorrow" is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call "today." All the days are "Now" for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not "foresee" you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already "Now" for Him.[6]

A criticism of this argument is that this does not seem to grant free will. Predestination, regardless of how God perceives time, still seems to mean a person's actions will be determined. A logical formulation of this criticism might go as follows:[1]

  1. God timelessly knows choice "C" that a human would claim to "make freely".
  2. If C is in the timeless realm, then it is now-necessary that C.
  3. If it is now-necessary that C, then C cannot be otherwise (this is the definition of “necessary”). That is, there are no actual "possibilities" due to predestination.
  4. If you cannot do otherwise when you act, you do not act freely (Principle of Alternate Possibilities)
  5. Therefore, when you do an act, you will not do it freely.

This argument can be criticized in that it misunderstands timelessness. This argument requires that there is a "now" in time, which by the definition of "timelessness," is impossible. It can be seen that C. S. Lewis used the word "Now" in his explanation merely to illustrate his argument.[citation needed] Nevertheless, the argument would require a limit on God's omniscience. If he doesn't "know your actions until you've already done it", it implies that no-matter how God perceives time, that he would be unaware of your choice until it is final. However, Lewis' argument need not be seen as a "limit" on God's omniscience. To say that God does not "know your actions until you've already done it" is conflating a human experience of time with God's timelessness. "Until" and "already" imply duration of time, which, as Lewis would say, God is outside of.

Freewill argument for the nonexistence of God[edit]

Dan Barker suggests that this can lead to a "Freewill Argument for the Nonexistence of God"[7] on the grounds that God's omniscience is incompatible with God having free will and that if God does not have freewill God is not a personal being.

Theists generally agree that God is a personal being and that God is omniscient,[note 4] but there is some disagreement about whether "omniscient" means:

  1. "knows everything that God chooses to know and that is logically possible to know"; Or instead the slightly stronger:
  2. "knows everything that is logically possible to know"[note 5]

These two terms are known as inherent and total omniscience, respectively.

If omniscient is used in the first sense then the argument's applicability depends on what God chooses to know, and therefore it is not a complete argument against the existence of God. In both cases the argument depends on the assumption that it is logically possible for God to know every choice that he will make in advance of making that choice.

It may be that omniscient is simply not a precise enough term to describe how and what God knows. The same problem arises with defining omnipotence.

The compatibilist school of thought holds that free will is compatible with determinism and fatalism, and therefore does not accept the assumptions of Barker's argument.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See the various controversies over claims of God's omniscience, in particular the critical notion of foreknowledge.
  2. ^ Though Moses Maimonides was not arguing against the existence of God, but rather for the incompatibility between the full exercise by God of his omniscience and genuine human free will, his argument is considered by some as affected by Modal Fallacy. See, in particular, the article by Prof. Norman Swartz for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Foreknowledge and Free Will and specifically Section 6: The Modal Fallacy
  3. ^ See also Divine Providence versus the concept of Fate
  4. ^ see e.g. Richard Swinburne Does God Exist? of The Catechism of the Catholic Church
  5. ^ see e.g. John Polkinghorne


  1. ^ a b Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Foreknowledge and Free Will
  2. ^ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Foreknowledge and Free Will
  3. ^ The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics (Semonah Perakhim), edited, annotated, and translated with an Introduction by Joseph I. Gorfinkle, pp. 99–100. (New York: AMS Press), 1966.
  4. ^ The Philosopher's Handbook, Stanley Rosen, ed., Random House Reference, New York, 2000.
  5. ^ Consolatio Philosophiae, Boethius, book 5:4
  6. ^ C. S. Lewis Mere Christianity Touchstone:New York, 1980 p.149
  7. ^ The Freewill Argument for the Nonexistence of God by Dan Barker, Freedom From Religion Foundation [1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles
  • Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica I, Q. XIV, esp. Art. 13: "Whether the Knowledge of God is of Future Contingent Things?".
  • Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Many editions.
  • Hasker, William. God, Time, and Foreknowledge". Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Molina, Luis de. On Divine Foreknowledge, trans. Alfred J. Freddoso. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. "On Ockham's Way Out". Faith and Philosophy 3 (3): 235–269.
  • Ockham, William. Predestination, God's Foreknowledge, and Future Contingents, trans. M.M. Adams and N. Kretzmann. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.
  • Zagzebski, Linda. "The Dilemma of Freedom an Foreknowledge". New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Luther, Martin: De servo arbitrio, in English: On the Bondage of the Will. In Latin and German 1525, in modern English: J.I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, trans. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957.

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