Free Will vs. Predestination

August 18, 2011 | by

If God is truly omniscient and omnipotent (knows the future), then how do I have free will? Everything we do God must want us to do - since He is omnipotent. If I pursue one path, then this is the path that God wants me to pursue.

Therefore how can man ever be punished? How can we be held responsible for our actions? And why bother changing?

I struggle with these philosophical issues constantly. Just for the record, I am a Jew exploring his Jewish roots, and am having seriously trouble reconciling many issues. Any information that you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

By the way, does God determine who will win the Super Bowl?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Often, a result is predetermined, but the path to get there is not. I like to think of it as a circle, with one point designated as the "finish line." You can enter the circle at any point - but whichever way you go, you'll always end up at the finish line.

For example, it may be predetermined that "Robert" will earn a million dollars this year. However, what is not predetermined is how Robert will get that money. For example, he could choose to work 60 hours every week, sacrificing his health and time with his family. Or he could spend all his time on the beach sipping iced teas, and buy a winning lottery ticket.

But if Robert were to go out and receive his million dollars by robbing a bank, he can't say, "It's not my fault! It was predetermined!" This is because we are still responsible for all our actions, and are subject to a reward and punishment for every choice we make.

Nevertheless, God not only knows every possible path, He also knows which path we will choose. And despite that, we still have free will.

Confused? There was a book written nearly 100 years ago by a British mathematician, "Flatland," that may help explain this idea.

Imagine a world which is only two-dimensional. That means everything is flat like a piece of paper. Everything that lives in this world is also flat. It might be a circle drawn on the paper - or a square or a triangle - but nothing in this flat world has any height whatsoever.

What do with these beings see when they look at each other? When the Triangle looks across the flat edge of the paper at the Square, he only sees a line. As the Triangle moves around the Flatland, the line he sees may change in length and texture, but a line is all he is able to distinguish.

Now let's imagine a human being comes along to visit this world, and sticks his finger through the piece of paper. What will those in Flatland see? They will see a flesh-colored line, bearing the texture of skin.

Now imagine that the finger begins to move up and down, through the piece of paper. What will those in Flatland see? They will see a series of flesh-colored lines. Will they be able to imagine what the finger looks like? No. They may be able to gain some sense of three-dimensional characteristics of the finger, but they will not be able to construct a total picture of the finger - because they have no frame of reference for anything bearing three dimensions. Although the finger (and the human being who owns the finger) surely exists, those living in Flatland hit a mental block when trying to imagine or describe that which they have glimpsed.

So too with us human beings in trying to imagine an infinite God, who exists in another dimension, outside the confines of time and space.

We take the concept of "time" for granted, but time is also a creation. It was created in such a way that one thing would happen after the next. Imagine if time was never created. One minute you would be writing an email, the next minute you would be born, after that you would marry your spouse, and then go through puberty. Life would be very confusing. So God created time in order that we should be able to understand the events of our life.

God, however, is above time. He can see the entire Master Plan, everything at once - birth, death, and everything in between. This is what the Sages expressed when they said, "Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given to choose." (Talmud - Pirkei Avot 3:19)

Don't be dismayed if you don't understand how this is all possible. The fact that God knows the future yet we maintain free will at every moment is one of the great philosophical and theological mysteries of mankind. For so long as we live in the physical world, bound by the limits of time, we will not be able to understand this contradiction. The true answer of how this works, as Maimonides writes, is unknowable to the human mind. We simply do not possess the tools to imagine the infinite realm of God's existence.

As for the Super Bowl, it seems that God has already determined who will win the game. Nevertheless, how it is played remains to be seen.

(sources: Talmud - Sanhedrin 90b, Maimonides - Teshuva 5:5; Way of God 2:6:3)

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