The Word: Can God Make A Person Free Enough To Surprise Him?

Explanation: A bit over a year ago, I began writing a regular theology column for Sci Phi Journal called The Mote In God’s ‘I’. This is the column that launched the series, and remains my fastest sale to date (15 minutes). I am re-running it here, hoping my readers like it as well as the editor did.

The Mote In God’s “I.”

Most of the problems I’ve run into in my life, I have solved by the simple expedient of reading more science-fiction. I was too young to be an astronaut when I discovered that such an incredible profession existed, so I read Rocket Jockey by Lester del Rey. I didn’t have any friends in my middle-school years, so I read Anne McCaffrey and imagined myself a dragonrider. Somewhat more productively, I watched and read Star Trek and found myself a few like-minded friends who started tabletop gaming. Problem solved. Whenever dramatically boring people said I couldn’t use made-up worlds to solve my problems, I pointed out that a) the “real” world had no better track record at that, and b) it was working fine so far. Then I read more science-fiction and solved more problems.

One of the oldest problems in theology is that of free will versus theological determinism. If God exists, and is all-powerful and all-knowing as his followers claim, then how can his creation be possessed of free will? Won’t He know everything they are going to do beforehand? And if He does, is the future not fixed? And if fixed, in what sense do creatures have a choice?

(This essay is not going to concern itself with the debate on whether free will exists. For the sake of this essay, it exists. If you believe otherwise, go… do whatever the hell you were already going to do, I guess. I can’t stop you. More to the point, you can’t stop you. Have fun.)

On the other hand, if creatures have free will, then can God really be God? Doesn’t that mean he’s either not omnipotent, or not omniscient?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

The problem is that many theological thinkers have just been willing to accept what turns out to be a false dichotomy. Calvinists, who believe in predestination, essentially say that yes, God does know everything, and are fine with that because the purpose of God is to glorify God. How God is glorified if it turns out that He Himself is the ultimate cause of evil, because no one ever had a choice not to commit it, I have never been able to figure out.

On the other side of the theological divide, we have the Arminians, who say that free will is sacred to God, so God would never interfere with it. While that certainly says a lot more for God’s character, it still doesn’t really answer how God can’t destroy free will by knowing the future.

In other words, the problem with both schools of thought is that their answers lack the imagination that provides the backbone of really solid science-fiction writing.

For the longer answer that is actually relevant I eventually formulated, I have to give credit, not, as you might think, to men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m going to assume we all know these guys were hard-core Christians, yes?) but to writers such as S.M. Stirling and Terry Pratchett. Because both of these men’s worlds really do contain the answer, if we look hard enough.

S.M. Stirling is my all-time favorite alternate-history writer. Sister Marya Sokolowska of his Draka cycle is one of my favorite religious characters in all of fiction. But it was The Peshawar Lancers that started me thinking along theological lines. In it, the “seer” Yasmini can see possible futures, enabling her to predict the results of present actions. As the novel progresses, she begins seeing all the possible futures, all the time, until it threatens to drive her mad.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld universe, more facetiously puts an omniscope (which can see anywhere and anywhen) under the control of the Department of Inadvisably Applied Magic. When asked to observe the future, he demurs, on the grounds that observing the future would cause all the possible futures to collapse into a single future, which, having been observed, would now be the only future.

In both of these cases, we see the same core idea: there are many futures to choose from. And while it might not be possible for a man to observe them all, as in Pratchett, or for a woman to keep them all straight, as in Stirling, it should be quite possible for God.

The solution to the problem is not that God be considered less than omniscient. It is that He be considered more omniscient than we had ever imagined. Why could God not see all possible futures, simultaneously, and then react accordingly as His creation, blessed with free will, makes choices?

There are really only two objections to this: Firstly, does this mean that God could be surprised? Maybe even thwarted? Certainly not, and science-fiction (or fantasy) again provides the answer, as any competent dungeon-master who has ever run a party through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign knows. Because the dungeon-master knows the rules. The party may do something unusual, and the die rolls may be odd, but they can’t really surprise him.  And by (in Hawking’s famous phrase) “throwing the dice where they cannot be seen,” God can certainly always create the circumstances He wants. But no being with infinite attention could ever be surprised, any more than an author of one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books could be when a child reaches one of his endings. Yet, the child had free will.

Secondly, is it possible for God to keep knowledge from himself in this way (and you have to admit, that’s a lot more interesting than the old “can-God-make-a-rock-so-heavy-yadda-yadda-barf” question)?

Well, it’s hard to imagine why He couldn’t. His lack of knowledge doesn’t threaten Him or anyone He cannot protect. And God often speaks in “If… then” phrases in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Exodus 4 being but one example). Why would God need to use “if” when He already knew? Is He lying to his followers? That would seem more troubling than the idea that God might limit his own knowledge. By giving people free will at all, God would already have limited His own power, simply by allowing other power to exist. This objection seems petty.

There seems to be no intrinsic reason then, why free will and omniscience could not coexist, so long as we recognize the proper definition of “omniscience,” which requires, as science-fiction has always required – as religion, at  its best, has always required – that we always seek beyond the limits of the humanly and presently possible.

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