Friday, September 23, 2005

God, omniscience, free will and foreknowledge

God recently invited me to browse in his Library of Babel. This is a library containing every book which could possibly be written. Every single conceivable combination of letters is present in one book or another.

I asked God why he had such a library. ‘Because I can’, He said. ‘I am omnipotent, you know.’

Many of these books are a history of a possible universe, recording in minute detail all that happens in that universe. With all conceivable combinations of letters covered, all histories of all worlds are in one book or another.

I asked God how He knew what was in each book, as there were just so many of them, more than I could take in. He looked at me and sighed – ‘I am omniscient you know’.

I asked if I was in any of the books. God showed me the book He was presently reading , which had me in it. God said ‘Look, there you are in it. It says that you are just about to ask me a question.’

‘Amazing.’ I said. ‘I was just about to ask you if you had an infinite number of monkeys typing at random to write the books.’

‘No.’, said God , ‘And the book says you are just about to ask me a question about free will.’

‘Amazing.’ I said ‘I was just about to ask you if I still had free will when you have a book describing in advance everything I will do.’

‘Of course you do’, said God. ‘There are plenty of other books which record free will choices you might make which are different. For example, there are lots of books which record your free will choice to go to the toilet at this time. But I haven’t chosen to read those books, so we can continue talking without you now needing a comfort break.’

‘That’s fair.’ I said . ‘I just don’t want to go to the toilet at this time, and you are not forcing me to stay here. But suppose I had chosen to go to the toilet now.'

God said 'That would simply mean that I was reading a different book.'

'You can choose to read any book you want?', I asked.

'Of course.', said God. 'I am omnipotent.'

'I can’t help thinking that I choose to stay here, because you are reading a book which says that I choose to stay here.’

‘Not at all.’ said God. ‘After all , it was you who helped to write the book I am reading.’

‘Me? I thought you had written the books. After all, it wasn’t an infinite number of monkeys typing at random.’

‘I never wrote the books.’ said God. ‘They record all possible free will decisions. For example, books 485,486 and 487 are identical up to line 8 on page 327, but in book 485 there is the word ‘but’ there, and in book 486 we can read ‘or’ there, while book 487 contains the word ‘and’ in that place. That is because they record the three free will decisions somebody might chose about what word to say next. These free will decisions are recorded even before I decide which book to read, so I have no influence on them at all. How could I?
’ I’ve just had a clever idea.’ I said.

‘I knew you were going to say that.’, said God.

‘There are a lot of books where Pilate condemns Christ.’

‘Yes,’ said God. ‘The book I am reading and also books 9000 to 14560, where Pilate condemns my Son to death in a variety of ways.’

‘Are there any books where Pilate doesn’t sentence Jesus to death?’ I said.

God sighed. ‘You clearly don’t understand what free will means. Books 14561 to 15732 describe how Pilate sets Jesus free.’

‘How do you know that without reading the books?’

‘I told you I was omniscient, didn’t I?’

‘Well, why not read one of books 14561 to 15372 instead of the book you are reading?’ I asked. ‘Then Jesus would go free.’

‘732, not 372’, said God ‘Lucky for you I don’t make mistakes like you do. But see for yourself what would happen if I tried. Remember books 485,486 and 487.’

‘They are identical up to page 327, and then the person they are describing chooses to say one of ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’?’

‘Those are the ones.’ God said ‘See what happens when you try to read them.’

I got the three books down and turned to page 327. Each of the three books contained the word ‘and’.

‘I thought you said that the 3 books were identical up to page 327, and then they record 3 different free will decisions – one says ‘and’, one says ‘or’ and one says ‘but’’ I said.

‘That’s right. They do.’, said God. ‘The Library of Babel contains all possible combinations and so records all the free will decisions. Here there were 3 free will decisions, so there are 3 different books, identical up to when they diverge. The possible free will decisions to choose between the words ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’ are all in the library.’

‘But the books all have the same word!’, I said. ‘How can they record different free will decisions if they all have the same decision?’

‘This is Plantinga’s Law of Counterfactuals’, said God. ‘People have free will , so in the same circumstances they have possible choices, and all the possible choices are recorded in one book or another. The books are identical up to a certain point and then diverge, depending upon which choice is in which book. But no matter which of those books I choose to read, the same decision will be recorded in that book. I cannot choose to read the book which has the word ‘or’ in it, because when I do, the word ‘and’ will be chosen.’

I decided that this was all too clever for me….