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June 18, 2008

The Language of God-8: The problem of free will, omnipotence, and omniscience

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

The one new (to me at least) and interesting argument in The Language of God was the attempt by Francis Collins to reconcile the idea of free will with god's omnipotence and omniscience. This knotty problem is caused by religious people wanting to hold on to three beliefs simultaneously: (1) We have free will. (2) God is omnipotent (all-powerful). (3) God is omniscient (knows everything in the past present and future).

Can all three things be simultaneously true? In the absence of a comparison with data, the only way that one can judge whether a proposition is false by reason alone is if it leads to a logical contradiction. Most people would immediately see that these three assumptions lead to irreconcilable contradictions and that one has to relinquish at least one of them. But Collins, like a lot of religious people, cannot bring himself to do that. He wants to believe in the traditional properties of god.

He also has the problem that although evolution by natural selection is not purely a chance-driven process, chance does play a role in one part of the process, that which causes mutations and variety. Chance can also play a role in the kinds of events that can change the environment in which an organism finds itself and thus change the way that the non-random natural selection process operates. For example, the asteroid collision that occurred about 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs profoundly affected the subsequent evolution process because it created opportunities for other species to emerge that might otherwise have been destroyed by dinosaurs.

This element of chance prevents religious people from simply assuming that god created the universe with its laws and then let it run its course because there is no guarantee that chance events like that asteroid collision would have occurred. Then how can you guarantee that humans would emerge without God intervening? The idea that humans emerged because of that chance collision does not cause atheists any problems. We are just thankful to have had that lucky break. But for religious people, humans were the goal of creation and their appearance cannot be left to chance. So what to do?

In item #4 of his basic tenets of BioLogos, Collins says that god never intervenes in the evolutionary process once he sets it in motion along with its associated laws. But he knows that there are contingent factors in evolution. So how can he ensure that humans must eventually appear? Again, to his credit, he does not duck the question or try to pretend it is not there.

Collins tries to deal with it by greatly expanding his concept of god:

The solution is actually readily to hand once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the moment of your reading this book – and beyond. In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God's perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process. (p. 272)

This is a truly remarkable passage, essentially saying that everything that would eventually occur was known by god at the time of creation, although to us it may seem like we have random events.

He had foreshadowed this extraordinary claim in an earlier part of the book (p. 113, 114) where he laid out his claims step-by-step.

  • If God exists, he is supernatural
  • If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws.
  • If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time.
  • If He is not limited by time, then he is in the past, the present, and the future.

The consequence of those conclusions would include:

  • He could exist before the Big Bang and He could exist after the universe fades away, if it ever does.
  • He could know the precise outcome of the formation of the universe even before it started.
  • He could have foreknowledge of a planet near the outer rim of an average spiral galaxy that would have just the right characteristics to allow life.
  • He could have foreknowledge that the planet would lead to the development of sentient creatures, through the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.
  • He could even know in advance the thoughts and actions of those creatures, even though they themselves have free will

It seems to me that in this passage, Collins has given up on free will altogether and reverted to a strict determinism, although free will was invoked by him in defense of suffering caused by people and free will is an essential component of the concept of sin. After all, sin has no meaning if we are all just automatons playing out our pre-ordained roles in a drama authored and directed by god.

But as is usually the case, trying to adjust god's qualities to take care of one problem immediately creates new problems elsewhere. John Allen Paulos (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008), points out one:

[E]fforts by some to put God, the putative first cause, completely outside of time and space give up entirely on the notion of cause, which is defined in terms of time. After all, A causes B only if A comes before B, and the first cause comes – surprise – first, before its consequences. (Placing God outside of space and time would also preclude any sort of later divine intervention in worldly affairs.)" (Paulos, p. 5,6)

Paulos also points out that Collins's efforts to have both omniscience and omnipotence runs into another well-known contradiction.

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He'd predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can't be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Paulos, p. 41)

I think that these are insurmountable obstacles for any religious believer to overcome. Francis Collins tackles them gamely but is defeated by them.

POST SCRIPT: Man Crushes

James Wolcott analyzes this phenomenon that exists amongst male journalists and politicians.

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Comments

I've always found the argument that god is outside of the universe to be rather pointless. If we as humans have a certain finite perspective (the universe and time) and if god is outside of that perspective, then what point is there in acknowledging his existence? If all things are already determined and set in motion, then why pray for anything? If god is outside of our perspective, and his actions appear to us as random chance, then what difference does it make whether they are in fact random chance or not? Would it not make the most sense in that case to live from our own perspective, as if god did not exist, whether he in fact does or does not?

Posted by Josh on June 18, 2008 04:05 PM

Josh,

Excellent points. It does seem as if the more sophisticated the arguments get for god, the more contradictions that are created.

Posted by Mano on June 19, 2008 09:19 AM

I heard a presentation once (and I'm not sure I totally buy it and certainly don't totally understand it) that proposed that God's omniscience refers to His knowledge of everything that exists. However, a future action or thought does not yet exist and as such He would not know that until the moment it happened. Meanwhile, knowing everything (that has happened) about everyone and everything and having an IQ way beyond the charts would make God a pretty good predictor of what is going to happen on a large scale. (But does He know what socks I will put on tomorrow morning?)

A very interesting consequence of this is that when He sent Jesus, His only begotten son, to earth on a mission to lead a sinless life and die a substitutionary death for sinners He did not know for certain that the mission would be successful. Jesus was tempted according to the Bible and if He couldn't have chosen to sin it was not really temptation. The plan of salvation was entered into at the risk to God of eternal loss. While all of this might seem to decrease God by limiting His knowledge of the future it greatly increases the love He demonstrated to fallen man in taking such a great risk without knowing the outcome.

Posted by Ray Foucher on September 13, 2010 05:51 PM