On Omniscience
© 26 Dec 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Omniscience and choice.


The Question

“‍If God knows what I’m going to choose, do I still really make the choice? Isn’t it made for me before I get the chance?‍”

For one reason or another, I hear that question a lot. It’s a question that came to mind again as I pondered the prophesy-laden events that surrounded Christ’s birth. It is, I think, a question that strikes at the very core of life. Are these choices I seem to be making actually choices? Am I living my life, or just experiencing it?

As knowledge approaches infinity…

In mathematics, when we want to look at infinites we do so by analyzing the patterns in the finite as we approach the infinite. Let us do the same with God’s infinite knowledge.

There are some people who know more about my choices than others. For example, my flatmates can make a pretty good guess at what I’m going to eat each day. The fact that they know that in no way lessens my choice; I still can (and sometimes still do) choose the unexpected.

I have had some very observant flatmates in the past. I would not be surprised to discover that some of them could predict my meals with more accuracy than I could. But I still could (and did) sometimes surprise them and me. Indeed, I don’t think I have any more freedom in meals now than I did then.

Taking this to the limit, I do not expect the amount someone does or does not know about my choices impacts my ability to choose. This concern about omniscience doesn’t seem to hold water.


The real argument against omniscience and free will coexisting is not against someone knowing my choices, but rather against those choices being knowable. If my flatmates could write down every meal I’ll ever eat till I die but they just can’t be bothered to actually do so that doesn’t make my dining patterns any less deterministic. It’s not so much god knowing what I’ll choose as the idea that it is possible to know what I’ll choose that rankles.

I could appeal to limits again, but the case isn’t as strong. Instead, I’ll share part of my view of the universe, a snippet of my personal philosophy if you will.

I view choice, freedom, agency, spirit, life, whatever you want to call it as one of the fundamental forces of the universe. Gravity pulls matter together, magnetic fields circle moving charges, and (some) beings make choices. Being able to model and predict any one of those in no way nullifies it. If I know everything about matter I can tell you how that matter will act. If I know everything about a person I can tell you how that person will act. Knowing gravity’s impact in advance doesn’t reduce its pull in the moment, nor does knowing a being’s choices reduce the fact those choices still are made.

I’ve held this view for many years and have explained it to many people. I’ve never yet had one of them accept it. And one of the weird things about me is that has never made me doubt my view, nor has is caused me to doubt the brilliance of my disbelieving audiences. As far as I can tell, choice doesn’t need anything to be unknown. Others see otherwise. So be it.

Can God Choose?

As a final thought here, what about the choices of the Omniscient One? Can God make choices?

Again, we can use limits to help here. I have no idea what shirt I’ll wear tomorrow. I have a pretty good guess what I’ll have for breakfast. I’m almost certain I know what path I’ll walk to work. But when tomorrow comes I’ll still be equally free to walk one of my alternate routes as I will to wear a different shirt. I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to do when the temptations that currently have me down come knocking, but that doesn’t mean I can’t choose a different path.

By extension, I posit that if anyone can chose, so can God. Indeed, to the degree that a choice without knowledge is a shot in the dark and not much of a choice at all, I suppose God has more choice than anyone.

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