Meat Robot 2: Omniscience & Omnipotent


At the discussion at John C Wright’s, I didn’t get to discussing my thinking about what I think free-will is. Because the discussion was couched in terms of Wright’s religious stance, I ended up at this point a lot quicker. I won’t repeat what I said there but I’ll rephrase and explain.

A divine being which is both all-knowing and all-powerful is incompatible with free-will.

I think this is obvious but there were friendly requests for explanation and it seemed to puzzle some people.

Firstly my point here is not to attempt to demonstrate the non-existence of god(s). A divine being need not be wholly omniscient or wholly omnipotent. More importantly, a divine being might be both but transcend logical inquiry. This last notion of a god being beyond logic is an old one but it is also one at odds with the perspective of Thomas Aquinas.

Of course omniscience and omnipotent create their own logical conundrums but I’m not addressing those either. My point here is just about free-will.

Firstly, while omniscience looks like a challenge to free-will, I don’t think by itself it makes free-will impossible. The first meat-robot post described some kinds of extreme knowledge from a non-theological perspective and those did not repudiate the kind of free-will I have in my mind. A god who knows everything you are going to do but NEVER TELLS YOU could be compatible with what I called free-will.

Some limited kinds of omniscience also seem compatible with free-will in general. For example, a being at the end of the universe who knows everything that happened prior could be said to be omniscient but as all our decisions are in the past our free-will could still be intact.

We can also imagine a god who is potentially omniscient – i.e. there is nothing that they cannot know – but which is not actively omniscient as there are things they choose not to know.

Likewise, omnipotence is not, by itself, at odds with free-will. An omnipotent being could make you do something against your will or even make your will something different but it does mean that they will do so. Indeed the power to override free-will implies the existence of free-will (otherwise what is being overridden?)

Put the two together in the conventional notion of god and I believe you have an issue. A being that knows everything and can do anything has by action or inaction DECIDED everything. It ceases to be a god that knows what you are going to do and becomes a god that has chosen that is what will happen.

In our lives or politics, we might make an ethical distinction between action and inaction. We may see inaction as simply not interfering in a natural course of events and hence ethically different from action. While that is an interesting discussion at a human level, it makes no sense at the level of a divine, omniscient and omnipotent being. For such a being there is no ‘natural course of events’ that is bigger than they are, there are no unintended consequence.

If we also accept that such a being is also the creator of the universe then even the distinction between action and inaction becomes moot.

NOTE: omniscience,omnipotence and creatorhood don’t all HAVE to go together. I’m discussing a straw-god here to some extent. Reader’s own gods may differ in notable ways from this one.

So where am I going with this? I can see many paths a theist can take to accommodate free-will and a belief in god. However, I don’t think any of them are simple. Of course, the atheist and the agnostic don’t have simple solutions to free-will either – and neither does this atheist meat robot. My point is simply that god, gods and faith simply change the nature of the philosophical problems around free-will. As a meat robot, I prefer the philosophical problems I have with free-will in so far as I at least have a decent entry account of what I think I’m dealing with but I can appreciate that other people may prefer a different approach which involves spirituality or theology (or both).

17 thoughts on “Meat Robot 2: Omniscience & Omnipotent

  1. “Put the two together in the conventional notion of god and I believe you have an issue. A being that knows everything and can do anything has by action or inaction DECIDED everything. It ceases to be a god that knows what you are going to do and becomes a god that has chosen that is what will happen.”

    I don’t think that follows. Why not a god that lets -you- decide what will happen? Indeed, lets you decide when he doesn’t have to? That’s what Christianity is. God can decide, but does not and chooses to let us do it. Free will is bestowed on humans as a gift.

    We of course fuck it up immediately, but that’s from our perspective. Presumably we’re doing all right from a divine perspective. God does not -have- to put up with us, after all. He has free will too.

    Then there is the question of the nature of human beings. Are they divine as well as mundane? If so, then when a human decides something with their free will, that is the divine decision being made. The free will of humans -is- the free will of god, showing up in our 3D world. That’s probably a heresy somewhere, but in my current blissful ignorance of theology, I don’t know.


    1. Good point. An omnipotent god can, of course, let you decide – but one that is also all-knowing already KNOWS what you will decide. An omniscient omnipotent creator god not only knows what you will decide but arranged the universe knowing what you would decide.
      I agree that the Christian notion of free will as a gift of freedom from God to His creations is a positive and attractive one – it just doesn’t work well with an all-knowing, all-powerful creator.

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      1. i claim that we can prove the universe cannot contain a universally omniscient being.

        Assume there was one. Universally omniscient means it always knows everything, past, present, and future. Now write a computer program that asks “what number will I output next?” In response to that input, it outputs some different number. Then have the omniscient being run the program. It will be unable to choose a number to input, contradicting the claim that it’s universally omniscient. I.e. we have constructed a scenario in which it isn’t omniscient.

        Nothing stops us from having one that’s mostly omniscient, of course. Or having a truly omniscient one that’s outside the universe (i.e. doesn’t interact with it).

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      2. Structurally, I think that is very similar to my argument about free will. However, I don’t think your example quite works. The being can simply lie when it inputs the number i.e. put in the number 2 knowing that the computer will output the number 7


      3. “An omniscient omnipotent creator god not only knows what you will decide but arranged the universe knowing what you would decide.”

        Granting that, why is it a problem? If God can see the entire decision space, and has arranged things to his liking, -you- don’t know that. Your decision is not constrained, and your free will functions “freely”, as it were.

        There is also the possibility that god can know all and do all, but does not. Allows the tree to grow as it will. Gardener vs. admirer of wild spaces.

        There is also the limits of organization to contend with. Ants chose their paths on the spot, they are not controlled by a higher entity. They have “free will” within the constraints of their neurology, and they use that to overcome unknowable-in-advance obstacles to their work. Every ant hill turns out different. But they are also all the same. How much moreso will a universe have to be designed that way?

        One of the problems with the issue as phrased is it doesn’t take into account that we’re dealing with something larger than we are. I’m reminded of Flatland, the two dimensional universe. If God is a human, Flatland experiences him as two shoe prints when he is standing up. They can’t see the rest. Flatland experiences God’s beer stein as a circle. They can’t see the beer.

        God can flip though the whole picture book from front to back, and experience the entire story as an animation. Flatlanders have to do it the hard way.

        So if God is omnipotent, he can do anything. Omniscient, knows everything. He knows which lobe of the electron shell holds the electron. He knows if Schroedinger’s cat is going to live or die. He has to be part of the universe AND outside it at the same time. We don’t get to know that stuff. We have to go the long way. Open the box and look at the cat. Collapse the quantum state.

        In the omniscient, omnipotent scenario, god experiences the whole of the universe from start to finish, front to back, as Michelangelo looking at David. We experience it as Flatlanders looking at a CAT scan of David. Slices.

        Therefore, with that presumption, there is no bar to human free will and an all-seeing, all-knowing god. And maybe we are god looking inside to see if Schroedinger’s cat made it. Maybe a human is a localized, 3d instantiation of god.

        That would actually be pretty cool. That’s what the Bible says we are, right?


      4. I think a god who could, if they chose to, know everything but who does not chose to, makes a lot of sense theologically. It is unremarkable to accept that god can be all powerful and yet chooses not to do all things at once – so I can see that makes sense with omniscience as well. It’s a subtle point though.

        I think your last set of ideas are interesting but probably heretical! 🙂 A bit Spinoza-ish – which is cool. Spinoza was cool.


      5. Hmmm. Good point. Let me think about that. I’m not sure I like a god who says “4” but then when the computer says “7” he says “that’s what I meant.” 🙂 From a different angle, I suppose there’s no problem in general with a lying, deceitful, god, but “he says he knows everything, but you can’t believe the things he tells you” seems unsatisfying theology. Even for Donald Trump! I suppose all it proves is that you can create a situation where he cannot share his omniscience. Perhaps I’ll argue that that it shows that at least some of his omniscience has to stay outside the universe.

        On a separate point, note that if you have a god who’s omniscient and omnipotent, it would seem that he can’t do anything unexpected. That is, he doesn’t have free will either. In fact, if he’s omniscient, he’s actually impotent, and so (of course) are we. This is a small improvement over “could he make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it?”


      6. I have long subscribed to that N-dimensional view of God too. Someone made a trite (but for me faintly helpful) analogy many years back which I rather liked, in which the comparison was between God and the EU
        When the wars between the various former Yugoslav republics broke out, the observation was that the EU was in the position of being essentially omniscient and omnipotent (by comparison to the participants) but, crucially, completely unable to do anything about it.
        And whilst that certainly leads to Greg’s point about whether or not this makes God actually impotent, one possible counter-argument is that there are people doing things in God’s name rather than their own. I often wonder about people who demand proof of God’s existence but are willing to discount everything (both good and bad, I admit) that is done “in the name of God” because they regard it as just a mass delusion. Which is why, for me, “free will” and “omnipotence/omniscience” are not necessarily incompatible.


  2. So first thing … the world is random.

    God didn’t create man with free will. Man is happenstance.. There have been five major extinction events that culminated in the evolution of homo sapiens. Once upon a time there were at least six species of man. There is one left. The other five didn’t disappear of their own free will.

    If there is a god (or gods) the question is what is the nature of such god (or gods). Are they even self aware? If there is, random chance seems to be god’s law within the fixed boundaries of the natural world.

    There is no religion that has made a sincere attempt at describing what god might be. Al we have are a bunch of inherited mythologies and superstitions. For all practical purposes, god is irrelevant to the question posed.

    Does free will exist within the confines of our physical world? Does the selfish gene allow for free will? Sure. You get 5 cards. Do you hold the A kicker and keep just the pair or do you toss the A kicker. Well… it’s free will. But the cards we hope are random.


    1. ” Once upon a time there were at least six species of man. There is one left. The other five didn’t disappear of their own free will.”

      They all married each other and had us.

      Neanderthals didn’t die. They’re Germans and Scotsmen and Swedes. Explains a lot, when you think of it.


      1. That may be a grain grown to a wheat field. There may ( or may not) have been some inter breeding between the species (or sub species), but if there was – it didn’t go well.


      2. “There may ( or may not) have been some inter breeding between the species (or sub species), but if there was – it didn’t go well.”

        Apparently Neanderthals were hot, their genetics are all through the northern populations. That whole “we killed them all!” thing is very 1950’s, didn’t happen. Human genome is packed with Neanderthal stuff. Aspergers/Autism is Neanderthal linked, is the latest theory.


      3. Not really so much packed. And missing some chromosomes that one would expect. And it all seems to be one way. There is some debate for sure but nothing that is conclusive that “Neanderthals didn’t die. They’re Germans and Scotsmen and Swedes.” If anything, just the opposite. People interested can review the studies. It is an interesting read.


  3. Those are some well-marbled thoughts for a meat robot, CF.

    I’m in the 1970s corner with Cat Stevens, “Well, if you want to sing out, sing out/ And if you want to be free, be free… You can do what you want/ The opportunity’s on/ And if you can find a new way/ You can do it today/ You can make it all true/ And you can make it undo”. OK, I don’t actually believe that, but sometimes just singing along is life’s best recourse.


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