A common Judaeo-Christian belief is that God is omnipotent and omniscient. Another common Judaeo-Christian belief is in mankind has free will. Are these two ideas mutually exclusive, or can they be reconciled? How, and why?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
These ideas have been debated by some of the brainiest people for over 2000 years, so you’re not the first to ask.
They can be reconciled, but only on the proviso that the questioner agrees with the basic tenets. But to understand those is impossible without intensive training in theological philosophy, so this is not going to be part of my answer.
There are other ways, however.
The first is the skeptical perspective which demands of the claimant to explain the exact meaning of the words ‘omnipotence’ and ‘freedom’. It is practically impossible to do this: First, because we humans have no experience of ‘omni-anything’ because of our limited scope for exact knowledge of something as vast as the universe. Second, because ‘freedom’ is a social term and relies on consensus, which cannot be achieved to everyone’s satisfaction. Therefore ‘freedom’ is a rubbery term because you cannot make a list of all the possible constraints on freedom, only on those which operate in your particular society and the habitat in which you may live. Similarly ‘omnipotence’ is a term that relies on doctrine because we cannot make a list of all the powers that have to be included in it.
Accordingly both of these words are born from language use and share in the limitations of what humans can express. Which means they are conventional terms. We agree (very roughly) on what their meaning is supposed be and put these into a dictionary. That does not stop debate on them.
Another way would be to limit the meaning of both words to ‘practical’ usage. Take some monkeys and leopards out of the zoo and release them into the wild – into a congenial habitat of (say) a thousands square miles which conforms to the habitat in which they evolved. Then put a fence around the habitat. You have now played God with them. You have given them their ‘freedom’ while curtailing it at the same time to certain limits. They can now work out their own survival strategies and live happily ever after. You reserve the right to observe them and ‘cull’ a disobedient individual every so often if you choose.
The animal might well come to the belief (if they could think) that you make their food grow and frighten them with lightning and earthquakes. They might end up praying to you, imploring you to look after them.
This, more or less, is what all theological arguments amount to.
From a strictly logical point of view, of course, the terms ‘omnipotence of One’ and ‘freedom of the many who are subject to the One’ cannot be resolved. They are children of human naivety and the constraints on language, the same kind as the many paradoxes we can create with language.
Write on a card, ‘The statement on the other side is false’. Write on the back, ‘The statement on the other is true.’ That’s your answer.