Lex Luthor in the movie Batman v Superman vehemently expresses his frustration regarding God using the age-old argument succinctly described as : the Problem of Evil. It is the concept that If God is all Good he can’t be all Powerful and vice versa. This mode of argumentation is an old means of arguing against God by trying to put two attributes of God in loggerhead. Another popular version of it is the famous/infamous Omnipotence Paradox: Can God create a stone so heavy he can’t lift (and its variations). While these so-called paradoxes in terms of God’s omnipotence are basic theology 101 for most theology students and enjoy popularity online, its cousin paradoxes regarding omniscience are rather less utilized. Nevertheless, privy to various online enclaves where theological topics are discussed, questions and paradoxes regarding omniscience comes to my attention from time to time. As such, I decided to document my thoughts on one of these.
The question I will try to tackle is the age-old question of God’s omniscience and its implication with the concept of “free will”. The standard version of it goes: If God is Omniscient then He knows everything, if that is the case he should know what he will do regarding an event in the future. Is it then possible that God can choose not to do what He knows He will do? If yes then He isn’t Omniscience if No then He doesn’t have free will. Sophistication aside it’s a question of: Can God change His mind.
The issue as usual is streamlining a set of questions in a manner that gives a veneer of contradiction. Theologians employ various ways to retort to this issue. One common means is to claim God is timeless. By that implication God doesn’t have preknowledge over certain acts rather the concept of before and after is something only we experience. God on the other hand don’t and as such, the question of changing His mind won’t meaningfully apply. For if one has to change His mind, he has to know beforehand that he would have done something and then decided on something else. That concept would only work if before an event has any meaning to me. If I am timeless the before and after is meaningless and as such the paradox of God changing his mind about an event He knew He would do otherwise doesn’t pack the exact punch it set out to do.
While this is indeed a meaningful response my personal preference is not to utilize it. For one strictly theologically speaking, what does timeless entail? If He is absolute without time does He operate in time for us? If that is the case how is he timeless? Doesn’t the question previously asked remains, though somewhat in an amorphous manner? Scripturally speaking, God is portrayed to be pleased or angry or be active in time with us interacting with us. How would we then interpret the verses and hadith that speak of God in that manner? To employ a timeless God a level of an interpretive jump is required that would be quite stretchy. As such I and many other theologians, ranging from Newton to more recent William Lane Craig in Christianity and ibn Taymiyyah, ibn Qayyim in Islamic tradition, believe it makes more sense to believe God is not atemporal rather is tensed in light of scripture and theology. It must be stated however, I am not looking for an argument on the line of Gods Temporality. We have ulemas of great pedigree on both sides and as such while I have my conviction I don’t have any wish to get into a spat on the particular matter.
With that in mind, how do we approach the issue of changing the mind? First, we have to see if the question makes sense, second, we will try to see if the question does make sense and God is unable to change His mind will that cause any issue for God. So let’s get to the first issue, the question has an undefined term “free will”. The questioner assumes a meaning of free will that is tailored to question it for God, the assumed meaning itself isn’t the official definition nor is it a fair one. To the questioner, free will implies the ability of a person to deliberately change His mind on something that one has already made up his mind on. Now that is a very strange way of structuring free will. Say I decided that tomorrow after breakfast I will have a cup of tea, after breakfast my wife notes that she would be making a cup of coffee for herself. Being too lazy to make my cup of tea and teh fact that her coffee is so much better, I ask her to make 1 for me as well and relish that. Now I did make my mind up for tea but at the moment of decision, I opted for coffee due to external influence. Would that fall in free will? Partially as my example has me opt for coffee myself nevertheless it is contingent on various factors: My wife’s penchant for coffee that morning, the fact that its much better than my attempt at making a tea, my laziness to make a cup of tea for myself, etc. These factors are external to me and unknown to me. As such, while I freely choose to opt-out from tea to coffee my absolute knowledge on these factors a day prior when I decided on tea was missing. If it was then I would have chosen coffee. The choice itself is as free as it was yesterday as it is today, the difference is my knowledge of the prominent factors surrounding my decision. For God that is not a problem and as such while He realizes that on X day from now He will decide to do Y his choice of Y is taking all the issues that surround Y and thus His choice of Y is absolute. The absoluteness of His choice isn’t a contradiction to Him having free will.
Not to mention, free will is a concept where someone can choose for himself an action without any determining effect from that whats other than him. In that definition, God is possibly maximally free agent. Anything and everything that He does is based on the knowledge that He possesses and the power that He wields. As His knowledge of the future is absolute and He is by definition omnipotent He can’t ever be coerced to do something He doesn’t want. Whatever He decided is based on what He wants and desires. Thus the question itself is flawed, it tries to define free will not only in an inaccurate manner but also in a very tailor-made fashion to indict God. The result is a faux claim of God lacking “free will”.
It should also be noted that while the question was flawed the reasoning process itself is also problematic. The questioner assumes that changing the mind is an admirable act. I don’t see how that is the case. Changing your mind is admirable only when you have a better choice available to you. For God to change His mind would imply that initially, he intended not to choose the best possible choice from a given set of actions. That itself denies the attribute of God: Wisdom. We Muslims believe God is the Most Wise, as such every act that He decides to do is the wisest possible act. For Him to decide on an act and then change and do something else either means 1) He found a better choice or 2) He was not able to do what he wanted or 3) He lied about what He intended. Neither of the options makes God perfect, the former 2 makes God look weak while the latter makes God a deceiver. Especially if we posit option 2 that God after intending to do he didn’t do because he couldn’t then that is what makes God having no capacity to enforce His will and as such while His mind may be free His mental state is far more capable than His creative capacity and that would make God imperfect.
As such, I would posit not only the question is flawed but also the sentiment behind the reasoning is problematic. As Muslims, we affirm that God has absolute knowledge of the future and knows precisely what He intends to do. That doesn’t take away anything from His divinity nor reduce His perfection. Rather, if it was otherwise it would indicate Allah is imperfect.