Argument from free will

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] The argument may focus on the incoherence of people having free will or on God having free will. These arguments are deeply concerned with the implications of predestination.

Omniscience and free will

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

Some arguments against God focus on the supposed incoherence of humankind possessing free will. 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 (possession of all possible knowledge) with human free will have been proposed. Some have attempted to redefine or reconceptualize free will:

Other counterarguments have focused on God's omniscience:

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.

God's free will

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


  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. 1 2 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 Freethought Today, August 1997

Further reading

External links

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