Free will

After a discussion with a friend about Nostradamus, I realized that the existence of prophets conflicts with the idea of free will: if the future is written in such a way that we can make definite predictions years ahead of time, then the choices of people can mean nothing…they are thus not free. Perhaps this is true, but I find it interesting that Christianity (and probably other religions) has free will as a basic axiom, and yet prophets are a common and fill an important component of the faith!


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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4 Responses to Free will

  1. scottk says:

    Free will also goes out the window with the claim that God is omniscient, since this includes knowledge of the future!

  2. bblais says:

    Actually, omniscience alone does not immediately preclude free will. If we have a true random system, such as a quantum system, then omniscient would have to mean knowing all that is knowable. This would be knowing the detailed probabilities of trajectories of all particles, but wouldn't even in principle include the knowing of all of the actual trajectories.

    Now, I doubt that most Christians would support this definition of omniscience, but then again most Christians don't understand quantum indeterminacy. 🙂

  3. I don’t know if omniscience necessarily does away with free will, even if it includes exact knowledge of what, to us, is future events. It depends upon how one comes upon the knowledge.

    Consider a man watching a pre-recorded football game, about which he’s already read extensively in the newspaper. He knows the outcome, he knows what the players will do. Did his knowledge effect the player’s free will as they played? Of course not, because the viewer came upon his knowledge of events after they occured.

    Now, imagine he goes back in a time machine and sits in the stands. He still knows how events will play out. He’s not down on the field effecting events, so nothing changes. Does his knowledge mean the players have no free will? I don’t think so.

    Most people who believe in an omniscient God see him standing outside time — seeing all time as “present”. Thus, God comes by his knowledge of events the same way the time-traveling football fan did: he sees them from the perspective of one remembering events that have already occurred. His knowledge doesn’t effect our free will.

    Now for fun, imagine that the viewer watching the taped game saw something he didn’t like. At a crucial moment his team fumbled the ball and lost the game. When he goes back in time and enters the stands, he sees the game unfolding just as he knows it will. He wants to make some impact to change events. What might he do? There are a number of things he might do. He might go directly to the player and say “on such-and-such play, cut right instead of left when you go out for the pass”. Or he might go to the coach and say “replace #39 with #54 at the beginning of the 4th quarter”. But maybe he just rips off his clothes moments before the bad play and runs out into the field naked. The interesting thing is, no matter what he does, he’s going to be unsure of what will happen next. In fact, that latter option may be more effective then any direct approach at getting things to change, because it will effect everyone, and will be less likely to be ignored.

    It seems to me that this is the kind of omniscience God has, as he is described in the sacred texts of the major religions, and this is indeed how he is seen to behave, if one reads the Bible as a narrative. God seems to be trying things and gauging the effect. He tries the direct approach – just go and tell them what to do (Adam and Eve) – ok, that didn’t work out. When things do awry he tries erasing and starting over (Noah) – direct approach again – nope. He tries various other strategies – working through intermediaries, “coaches” (Abraham, Moses, etc.), handing down a written playbook (the Law), he tries outrageous schemes involving running around naked, etc. (some of the prophets, e,g, Ezekiel) – nope. If one follows this into the New Testament, then in Jesus he tries his craziest scheme yet, which in our time-traveling football fan analogy would correspond to going right down on the field, explaining to the team who he is, why and how he’s there, suiting up and playing in the game himself.

    After that, he seems to have given up on any kind of direct action and contented himself with subtle, indirect tweaking – a little motivation here, a little nudge there – and taking the long view. Now he’s more like a sculptor than an engineer. Not so much creating the world he wants as gently chipping away at it, to make it slowly conform to his desire.

  4. brianblais says:

    I think you may be right, Tim. Of course most people think that God can do a bit more than just the things you state. If God is unable to change the situation in particular ways, then he no longer is an object of worship (for most Christians). Omnipotence usually goes along for the ride, which combined with omniscience is definitely contradictory to free will.

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