“God Knows What You’re Going To Do Last Summer” – this is the second article in a series dealing with the major attributes ascribed by the religious to their god. (Part 1 was mistakenly entitled “We Are God” by N24 editors. It’s at http://www.news24.com/MyNews24/We-are-God-20131006)
The second great attribute accorded to Jehovah/Yahweh is omniscience, where he supposedly knows everything about the entire universe, past, present and future. He also apparently knows the outcomes of choices and decisions we will make in the future.
Christians have said that Jehovah knows the results of free will because he operates outside of time. This is how they reconcile the idea that we have absolute freedom of choice in all things, even those that change the course of history, with the idea that Jehovah’s foreknowledge of the choices implies predestination. Put another way, it means that the billions of years that pass within the universe are an instantaneous snapshot when perceived from outside of it.
I have to say that this is quite an interesting view. It certainly works as a model in that an analogy can be made that we all understand. We’ve all seen compression of a three-dimensional entity into a two-dimensional entity – it’s called a photograph. The third physical dimension in a scene i.e. depth, is reduced to zero and all items pile up on one another as if they’re right in front of the camera. Our minds fill in the context because we know the difference in size between a cow and a doorknob. So if you imagine time as that “third” dimension, it’s easy to see how it can be condensed down to zero and it seems as if all things happen simultaneously even though they’re separated by time and some events cause others. If you’re not getting this, don’t worry, it’s actually an explanation to atheists of how this Christian idea can be illustrated.
But what are the problems here? Causality is one of them and it impacts the freedom of choice. We are, after all, the sum total of our ageing physical bodies and our experiences, and at the instant that we make a choice, we make it based on the influences of those elements that make us up. A starving man steals because he’s hungry. A lonely person seeks solace in drink. A young mother declines a lucrative job offer to keep looking after her newborn. All these examples have something in common, namely the influence of each person’s body needs, emotions, which are a neural phenomenon, and hormones, which are chemical in nature. A truly free choice is one that is absent of any external influences, where we could choose one thing over another, or the other thing over the first. But when our actual choice mechanism in our minds is influenced by hormones, chemistry, situations, or blinded by love, it can not be a free choice.
Here’s an experiment. How can you demonstrate that a choice was free for you to make? Find a situation where you’re faced with one. Choose either option and live with it. Now, can you repeat that exact same situation so that you can repeat the choice in a different way to show that your choice was free? All the conditions, all the thoughts, all the factors that influenced your choice. Extremely unlikely. And there’s another factor that you cannot eliminate. To demonstrate your freedom of choice, you now have to choose the opposite of your first choice – you have to. But because of this, your second choosing is no longer free, your second choice is forced upon you by your first one. Tricky, eh?
Another problem with the “outside of time and space” idea is that it’s far too easy to just say that God works outside time and space and can therefore have foreknowledge of a choice. Humans cannot conceive what “outside of time and space” can possibly mean, we have absolutely no way of imagining this in reality. Our thinking processes are totally programmed with those concepts because that’s the nature of the universe we live in. The very best we can do is create an analogy, as I did earlier, to try to visualize it. But we have no idea whether there can even be an “outside” to time and space. So that really is special pleading, asking the reader to take something on even more faith than the item of faith being discussed.
A far more believable basis for this dubious claim is based on the implications of the “theory of mind” (“The God Instinct” by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering explains this well; see a review at http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2010-12-07/the-god-instinct-by-jesse-bering). To quote: “Religiosity started as a combination of human traits as especially agency detection, theory of mind and narrative constructions of meaning” – what this boils down to is that a central tool within religions is the idea of an omnipresent and omniscient agent that can know what you get up to, however secretly you do it. It’s a simple social control mechanism and the more strongly a faith cultivates it in its followers, the more the faithful feel compelled to adhere to the tenets of the faith. In short, it’s an imagined notion that binds you more strongly into the faith, and it’s very much in the interests of the leaders of the faith to cultivate this false idea. Check out Bering’s book – you’ll have your eyes opened.
Once again, as with omnipresence, omniscience is a case where christians don’t understand the implications of what they mean.
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