The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 September 2003

I knew you were going to say that

It's just not a World Wide Rant without Andy going ballistic over what he perceives as the perversities of theists, and usually he's quite entertaining in the process.

I think, though, he's a couple degrees off plumb this time. For one thing, he insists on defining "eternity", following the lead of the Raving Atheist, as an "infinite number [of] years." I have just enough background in mathematics to point out that the notion of an "infinite number" is meaningless: if there is any number at all, it's not technically infinite. There are transfinite numbers — if you're so inclined, aleph-null is the total number of integers — but they aren't particularly useful in measuring time, which doesn't have an irreducibly-small integral unit to count. (On the other hand, the counter at Wendy's World has already hit aleph-null.)

More serious is his revival of the classic conflict between free will (do we have it?) and divine omniscience (does your friendly neighborhood deity have it?), which was analyzed in terms of game theory by physicist William Newcomb. Newcomb's Paradox presents the following situation:

A highly superior being from another part of the galaxy presents you with two boxes, one open and one closed. In the open box there is a thousand-dollar bill. In the closed box there is either one million dollars or there is nothing. You are to choose between taking both boxes or taking the closed box only. But there's a catch.

The being claims that he is able to predict what any human being will decide to do. If he predicted you would take only the closed box, then he placed a million dollars in it. But if he predicted you would take both boxes, he left the closed box empty. Furthermore, he has run this experiment with 999 people before, and has been right every time.

What do you do?

On the one hand, the evidence is fairly obvious that if you choose to take only the closed box you will get one million dollars, whereas if you take both boxes you get only a measly thousand. You'd be stupid to take both boxes.

On the other hand, at the time you make your decision, the closed box already is empty or else contains a million dollars. Either way, if you take both boxes you get a thousand dollars more than if you take the closed box only.

(Thanks to Franz Kiekeben.)

The most sensible reconciliation between free will and divine omniscience I've seen was written up by theologian Dr William Lane Craig, and it's based on Newcomb with apparently just a dash of C.S. Lewis. Dr Craig's conclusion:

It is I by my freely chosen actions who supply the truth conditions for the future contingent propositions known by God. The semantic relation between a true proposition and the corresponding state of affairs is not only non-causal, but asymmetric; the proposition depends for its truth on which state of affairs obtains, not vice versa. Were I to choose otherwise than I shall, different propositions would have been true than are, and God's knowledge would have been different than it is. Given that God foreknows what I shall choose, it only follows that I shall not choose otherwise, not that I could not. The fact that I cannot actualize worlds in which God's prediction errs is no infringement on my freedom, since all this means is that I am not free to actualize worlds in which I both perform some action a and do not perform a.

If you change your mind, God's knowledge changes right along with it.

Okay, not the easiest concept to swallow. But it's easier, at least for me, than a completely predestined world with all the options foreordained.

(Note: Minor changes in the last sentence for purposes of optic beam removal.)

Posted at 9:57 AM to Immaterial Witness


TrackBack: 9:08 PM, 22 September 2003
» Free Willies from Liquid Courage
Jiminy. A girl takes a month-long vay-kay from the blogosphere and suddenly everyone gets "eternal" on her. Well, since this......[read more]

TrackBack: 9:33 AM, 25 September 2003
» Now, And Then? from The Raving Atheist
Sometimes the best way to win a theological argument is to present a question-begging answer in formal, stilted philosophical jargon. Thus Dustbury offers what he considers “[t]he most sensible reconciliation between free will and divine omniscien......[read more]

TrackBack: 6:10 PM, 6 June 2004
» Now, And Then? from The Raving Atheist
Sometimes the best way to win a theological argument is to present a question-begging answer in formal, stilted philosophical jargon. Thus Dustbury offers what he......[read more]

I'm still not convinced.

Given that God foreknows what I shall choose, it only follows that I shall not choose otherwise, not that I could not.

Actually, I think that is still the crux of the problem. And I find that the alien analogy fails because, in the case of the alien, he seems to be saying he's batting .999 - in the case of God, it is always, without error, going to have a probability of 1 that he is correct.

If you change your mind, God's knowledge changes right along with it.

Then I would say, philosophically speaking, that God never really knew what I would do, and thus to call him omniscient is a misnomer.

Okay, not the easiest concept to swallow. But it's easier, at least for me, than a completely predestined world with all the options foreordained.

Or we could just rid ourselves of the notion of an omniscient god and move along. :)

Posted by: andy at 11:40 AM on 21 September 2003

All else being equal, I'd sooner dispose of divine omniscience than free will, if only for, um, philosophical reasons. :)

George Carlin, before he became renowned as an atheist, once objected to divine omnipotence as well: "God is subject to physical laws." Since they would presumably be God's laws, it presumably would be good for the ol' heavenly image to adhere to them.

As your basic wishy and/or washy deist, I toss these out for your inspection; you may do with them what you will — unless, of course, it was foretold that you won't.

Posted by: CGHill at 1:00 PM on 21 September 2003

Omniscience does not have to include transtemporality. It's the latter concept, not the former, that gives rise to all the theological difficulties surrounding free will.

Of course, the Fathers of the Church would be unhappy with me for saying so...but they're already unhappy with me for a number of other things.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 1:53 PM on 21 September 2003

If you change your mind, God's knowledge changes right along with it.

By that definition, I qualify as being omniscient (with regards to foreknowledge, at least). i see the future as a set of possibilities (that is, everything besides situations where i both perform action a and don't perform action a) and when the right moment comes around, my set of knowledge of future events turns out to be precisely equal to reality. Of course, i won't be sure of exactly what i knew until it happens, but neighter will god, so we're equal in that respect.

Right?

Posted by: polytix at 11:53 PM on 21 September 2003

Isn't it simpler to admit that God is a construct of our brain?

Posted by: June at 7:00 AM on 22 September 2003

"Thou art God." — Valentine Michael Smith

Posted by: CGHill at 7:29 AM on 22 September 2003

I dispose of the conflict by concluding that God, being also omnipotent, and probably bored to tears with knowing everything that's going to happen before it does, made us in His image so we could surprise him from time to time.

And it's up to us to use the resulting free will to try to make the surprises pleasant ones.

Posted by: McGehee at 10:18 AM on 22 September 2003

This invites the question: "Can God actually create something that is capable of surprising Him?" It's a variant on the old "rock so heavy He can't pick it up" theme.

My own take on this is that it's not actually supposed to make sense; we are not privileged to know all the secrets of the divine, and if we did, there's no reason to believe we would understand them correctly.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:24 AM on 22 September 2003

Somewhere in Tibet, there is a mountain of pure diamond, about one mile high. Every thousand years, a bird comes to sharpen its beak on the mountain. When the mountain is completely worn down by this, one second of eternity will have passed.

Posted by: June at 10:42 PM on 22 September 2003

The closest contemporary equivalent, I suspect, is waiting in line at the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:37 AM on 23 September 2003