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Omniscience, Foreknowledge, and Free Will

Kevin K. Winters


We take the basic assumptions that God exists and that He is all knowing (omniscient). We assume from this that God knows the future acts of his creations absolutely (i.e. without flaw). We can state this as follows:


God g foreknows at a particular time T1[1] that a free agent a will at a future time T9 bring about a certain state of affairs p.


We are led to the following conclusions with the above presuppositions:


If g knows at T1 that a will bring about p at T9 then 1) a will absolutely bring about p at T9 and 2) a cannot bring about ~p at T9 without invalidating g’s foreknowledge.


From 1) we look at the situation from the assumption that g foreknows the acts of a. From 2) we understand that in order for 1) to be coherent then it must be impossible for a to act otherwise than that which g foreknows.

A common dissent is that God foreknowing events does not imply that God forces the actions made. This is true enough. Here we have to distinguish between the consequent of the principle and the actions of the Being. Though God may not actively coerce men into acting one way or another, the fact that an omniscient God knows timelessly or temporally the future acts of so-called free agents promotes the idea that it is timelessly or temporally “too late” to change that future act, thus promoting a form of determinism (theistic determinism?). In other words: by the principle of g knowing absolutely and in-errantly at T1 that at T9 an agent will act a certain way necessitates that he/she act in that way, for if he/she were to act contrary to that foreknowledge then g would be wrong in His belief, compromising both His perfection and omniscience. Can this be reconciled with freewill?[2]

When one attempts to remedy the problem of foreknowledge and free will, without creating a contradiction, they become proponents of compatibilism. The compatibilists, generally speaking, postulate 3 points that need to be met in order for any action to be considered “free”:


1)      The immediate cause of the action is a desire, wish, or intention internal to the agent;

2)      There is no external event or circumstance that compels the action to be performed;

3)      The agent could have acted differently, if he/she had chosen to.[3]


Hence, the emphasis is placed on the inner workings of the free agent rather than on the consequences of the rationale of divine foreknowledge. This explanation simply begs the question and leaves unanswered the points raised above. It does enforce the concept that divine foreknowledge does not actively force an agent’s action, but it does not address the consequent of the foreknowledge and its resultant limitation on a free agent’s ability to choose a secondary action other than the one foreknown.

In another attempt to solve this dilemma, through compatibilistic lenses, proponents of Molinism[4] utilize a principle termed “middle knowledge”:


The theory of middle knowledge holds that, for each possible free creature that might exist, and for each possible situation in which such a creature might make a free choice, there is a truth, known to God prior to and independent of any decision on God’s part, concerning what definite choice that creature would freely make if placed in that situation.[5]


This fails on two counts:

1)      God continues to know absolutely what will happen (as in the beginning setup and consequent incoherence)

2)      The actions of the so-called free agent are shown to be mechanical and fatalistic due to the particular situation rather than by personal choice.[6]


A Molinistic perspective, in line with the above, rightly distinguishes between God’s activity of knowing and His conscious actions (i.e. postulating that God’s foreknowledge is “independent of any decision on God’s part”), except this creates a difficulty.

If the theorist holds to an omniscient God who does have absolute foreknowledge then the act of creation ex nihilo will show itself to be a conscious act whereby God knows all future actions of that which He creates. Put another way, God’s act of creating beings whose actions He knows beforehand is an act of conscious knowing through creation (i.e. before God created man He knew the actions of man according to how He would create them). To say that He didn’t know the future acts of His creation is to compromise His omniscience and to say that He could not have done anything differently compromise His omnipotence.[7] If these consequents are true, and if we hold to an omnipotent and omniscient God in the Classical sense, we can postulate that God could have done something different in His creation to alter the actions of the free agent, but didn’t.

Let’s examine one possible solution: God does not absolutely know the future acts of free agents. God knows all the possible acts a free agent may perform within the given situation(s). Thus:


g knows that a in a given situation will bring about one of two states of affairs, c or r.[8]


Let’s add to this the premise that God knows the more likely (plausible) state of affairs that the free agent will bring about due to past experience and nearly inexhaustible knowledge of the individual and their relations. This gives us the following setup:


g knows that a in a given situation is more likely to bring about c rather than r.


This appears coherent. In postulating that God does not know our future free acts absolutely we avoid the trap of determinism/fatalism. The hypothesis that God does know the more likely acts of the free agent allows for God to actualize states of affairs that will, more likely than not, fit into His grand scheme of things. Likewise, it allows for the actualization of God’s ultimate triumph despite a presently vague view of how He might achieve it.

With the above assumptions we can envision the game of chess. God may be viewed as a master chess player, aware of all possible actions of His opponent(s). Due to our lack of such knowledge, free agents may be viewed as novices, having knowledge of the basic moves (our free will) but far from having a cogent strategy. In this situation, the master chess player, God, may bring about His ultimate victory but still allow for the free choice of His opponent(s). Note: this presupposes that God is able to keep multiple options open and that He is able to set up numerous possible realities by which He is able to guarantee His ultimate victory.

Some will argue that the above makes God impotent. Speaking from a strictly logical viewpoint the above is true. Any being that is less than omnipotent will be impotent. But, it would be a mistake to consider a Being who can organize the heavens and earth, know all the in’s and out’s of physics and the sciences, is aware of every particle in the known universe and beyond, among other things,[9] to be finite in the plain English sense of the word. Such a Being is certainly way beyond any current human accomplishments in advancement and evolution.

With the above, it seems apparent that any belief entailing the absolute foreknowledge of God will have the logical consequent of endangering free will, making both omniscience and free will incompatible. We can also see that in tactfully limiting God’s foreknowledge[10] we can avoid the pitfall of absolutism without fully limiting His power to bring about His purposes and achieve ultimate victory.

[1] We are using temporal relations for conceptual purposes only, believing that using timelessness will produce the same conclusion.

[2] Using Alvin Plantinga’s definition of free will: “A person is free with respect to an action A at a time t only if no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he performs A at t or that he refrains from so doing.” The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 170-171, quoted in Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger, Reason & Religious Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pg. 121.

[3] Adapted from Reason & Religious Belief, pg. 75.

[4] From Terso de Molina.

[5] William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge (Ithica: Cornell University Press), p. 20, quoted in John Fischer, “Recent Work on God and Freedom”, American Philosophical Quarterly 29:2, p. 95.

[6] Essentially saying: “In any possible worlds with equal pasts, if a were placed in such a situation a will act in a prescribed way.”

[7] Here we are speaking of the Classical conception of God: all-knowing, all-powerful, unlimited, transcendent, and eternal. It is my contention that holding to a finitistic view of God allows us to skirt around these issues, with minimal loss. We should note, however, that once we bring logical limitations into the above problem a solution might be found. Such will warrant further investigation.

[8] Or “c or ~c” or any other variation in number or order ad infinitum.

[9] A good friend, and professor, at BYU would add, quite significantly, that God understands women, which stands as a great achievement in and of itself.

[10]  And His omnipotence, creating a finite (a.k.a. “less than Absolute”) and “maximally great” Being. See Flint and Freddoso, “Maximal Power” in The Existence and Nature of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 81-113 or at