Saturday, September 08, 2007

Paradox of omniscience and free will

Lots of theological debates center around the religious idea of free will. Some varieties of theists, i.e. Calvinists, don't believe in free will at all. Some atheists (like my friend Denis Loubet) don't believe in free will either, believing that the notion is incompatible with a completely materialistic universe.

Those are all interesting topics, but one issue I find equally interesting is whether "God," as Christians define him, can have free will. I think I'm borrowing this line of reasoning from an old Raymond Smullyan book, although I can't remember exactly where.

God is supposed to be omniscient. He knows everything about the past, present, and future. In fact, his knowledge is so complete that he must know every action that he himself will take in the future.

Now, suppose you yourself were granted the power of omniscience -- not omnipotence or any of the other useful attributes, but you know everything. Suppose it comes time to make a fairly mundane decision, like what you will eat for breakfast. You can have scrambled eggs or oatmeal. So you wonder, what am I in the mood for? Scrambled eggs, or oatmeal? But this is an easy decision: you are omniscient! Simply use your unlimited knowledge to peer a few minutes into the future, and see what it is that you will have for breakfast. And when you look at your future self, you know, as a matter of absolute certainty, whether you will be eating eggs or oatmeal.

But wait a minute. What if you are in a perverse frame of mind and wish to exercise your free will? So you say to yourself "Okay, here's what I'll do. I'll check the future, but I won't do what it says. If I see myself eating oatmeal, then I'll pick scrambled eggs. If I see myself eating eggs, it'll be oatmeal."

Now what does that mean for your powers? If your vision is guaranteed to be accurate, then you don't have the free will to change your decision. But if you can change your decision, then your vision was wrong, and you are no longer omniscient.

This is one reason why I conclude that no being can be both omniscient and free.

30 comments:

  1. That's a really great argument...I wonder how Christians would tackle that one lol.

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  2. Thumpalumpacus11:18 AM

    And this goes directly to the problem of evil. Given that Christian assign evil to man's free will, a corollary to your conclusion is that any extant omnimax god must approve of evil.

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  3. Richard Dawkins brings this up in The God Delusion, and it is a good point. I would go further and point out that an omniscient God precludes human free will (and animal free will, for that matter) because the same logic applies.

    To take it a step further still, if you merely postulate an omnipotent God, the same problem arises, for omnipotence includes the power to be omniscient (about the past, present, and future), by definition. Thus those theists who attempt to get around the problem by claiming God is only omniscient about the present have created a problem for God's omnipotence.

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  4. I've argued this with the bible beaters more than once and I can't get a straight answer out of any of them. I akin our lives to a movie. We don't know the ending but God must know, as he's the director. Get's em every time.

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  5. But this is an easy decision: you are omniscient! Simply use your unlimited knowledge to peer a few minutes into the future

    Just wanted to comment that this situation limits this theoretical god to a very human concept of space-time. If there is an omnipotent god, I would imagine that it would not have the same perception of space-time that we do. Perhaps this god lives inside of the past, present, and future all at once - or entirely outside of time altogether (whatever that would mean).

    I'm inclined towards atheism... but if there were a god, I cannot imagine that humans would have the slightest hope of comprehending anything about it.

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  6. While this whole "God isn't limited to space-time" argument is used often, I'm fairly convinced that no one who uses it has any idea what they're talking about. What does it mean not to be limited by space-time? Does it mean that God doesn't do anything sequentially, even from his own perspective? Then evidently he doesn't make any decisions, since anything he might do has already been done. So I'd say this doesn't make a bit of difference to the point that God doesn't have free will.

    I mean, even a time traveler, who arguably does not perceive time the way we do, nevertheless does things in some kind of order from his own point of view. Despite the fact that his sequence of events wouldn't match up with my, he nevertheless has a sequence.

    I'm inclined towards atheism... but if there were a god, I cannot imagine that humans would have the slightest hope of comprehending anything about it.

    Including, presumably:
    - the fact that it exists
    - the fact that it writes books
    - the fact that it interferes with our lives in any way at all

    Are you sure you meant to say we don't have the slightest hope of comprehending ***anything*** about it?

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  7. The Irony of 'a god we can't understand'

    --- it makes perfect sense to me that if there REALLY is a god then our ability to understand what he/she/it is and what it wants, etc would be seriously flawed, at best...

    the Irony is that the same believers who use this point to argue FOR the existence of a deity tend to be the SAME people who then insist that THEY know EXACTLY what GOD WANTS

    on a somehow-in-my-brain tangential note-- came across this article today:http://www.jasongriffey.net/wp/2007/09/18/technophobia-or-payola

    about how the Associate Librarian for Copyright Services for the Library of Congress (one of the people responsible for creating/enforcing digital copyright laws)-- doesn't even own a computer!

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  8. --- it makes perfect sense to me that if there REALLY is a god then our ability to understand what he/she/it is and what it wants, etc would be seriously flawed, at best...

    Maybe so, but only a truly incompetent God would be completely incapable of communicating with human beings. A smart god would have a very easy way of making us understand what it wants us to do: say so.

    This god is supposed to be omnipotent. He should be a better author than William Shakespeare. He should be a better polemicist than Clarence Darrow. He should be wittier than Jon Stewart. For cryin' out loud, supposedly HE CREATED US, he knows what makes each of us tick better than anyone can, and yet he can't even explain simple intentions in a way that people can understand?

    And as you indicated, theists believe exactly the opposite. They don't believe God is unable to communicate. They believe he reveals precise instructions through a perfectly preserved 2000 year old book. It's only the rest of us who are too dumb to understand him.

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  9. michael_legna7:06 PM

    I agree with your assessment of the paradox of free will and would like to offer a possible explanation of how a Christian would handle it (though admittedly not all do accept this idea).

    God in the Bible is considered both omnipotent and omniscient. He is consider omnipotent even though He has done things like promise to never destroy the world by flood ever again. These type of self limitations happen again and again in covenants He sets up. Yes Christians still see Him as all powerful because He could do these simple things, He has just chosen not to. So how does this apply to free will?

    I contend, as a solution to the free will paradox, that as part of the gift of free will, He chooses NOT to know every thing we do. He could know the choices we make if He wanted to, so He is still omniscient, but as a type of covenant He self limits Himself (just as He did with the promise to never destroy the world by flood) so we are truly free to choose without the causative effect His infallibility.

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  10. Anonymous10:20 AM

    "I contend, as a solution to the free will paradox, that as part of the gift of free will, He chooses NOT to know every thing we do. He could know the choices we make if He wanted to, so He is still omniscient, but as a type of covenant He self limits Himself (just as He did with the promise to never destroy the world by flood) so we are truly free to choose without the causative effect His infallibility."

    Even if God chose not to look into the future and see His or people's future decisions, isn't merely the possibility that He could do it enough?

    The fact that He has the ability to see the future means that the knowledge is there to know. So, even if God decides not to look, the future is still set in stone, so choice is only an illusion.

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  11. Anonymous5:45 AM

    Hello,

    God is both omniscient and unlimitedly independent. There is no past, present and future for Him. He exists eternally in His own blissful, spiritual form.

    He is everywhere. He maintains every living and non-living thing. At the same time He is always independent from creation, eternally enjoying His personal pasttimes with innumerable living beings in His own abode.

    He is eternally and increasingly surprised and delighted by His own unlimited glories and loving exchanges with His pure devotees.

    He is inconceivable.
    He is beyond mundane laws, dry arguments, or mental speculation.
    He is eternally free, blissful and happy.
    He reveals himself to anyone who sincerely desires to see or know Him.
    He is full of beauty, knowledge, strength, fame, wealth and renunciation.

    Everything that is exists in Him, and proceeds from Him.
    He is the cause of all causes.

    It does not matter whether we believe in Him or not. He is never affected by our blasephemies, or foolishness, which proceeds from our envious nature. Why are we envious of Him? That is our perverted love for Him.

    We are made in His image, so we also have free will. Free will to turn from him, if we want, and to try to enjoy like He enjoys. The only thing is, we are not Him. We are His servants. It is only by serving Him with love and devotion that we can recover our eternal nature and be eternally blissful, full of knowledge and eternity. Why? Because He is so beautiful and lovely that it gives us ever increasing joy to serve Him.

    We always serve Him, knowingly or unknowingly. Unknowingly, we serve Him in illusion, desperately trying to fulfill our unlimited desires, ever frustrated, and ever ignorant of what we are actually doing. We imagine we suffer. Knowingly, we feel greater bliss in serving Him than He does in being served.

    Nothing can disturb him. At the same time, He loves us unlimitedly and wants us to get out of our suffering condition. Therefore He personally comes and leaves his instructions in various scriptures such as Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, the Koran, The Bhudda Sutras, and innumerable others, which are spoken for different grades of living beings. He lives with us eternally, in wakefulness and sleep, and always fulfills our desires, in accordance with what we deserve by our own actions. Everything we see, touch, taste, feel, smell, love, hate, distrust, save, give, kill, buy, beg, borrow or steal, create, destroy, do, say, eat, meet, spite, fight is revealed to us by Him alone, for He is the supreme controller. Not a blade of grass stirs without His sanction. He is beyond my limited capacity to praise or describe.

    Please excuse me for my offences.

    Anything which I have written which is agreeable to you is the mercy of my spiritual master HDGACBSP. Anything which may have offended is due to my own faults in failing to faithfully fulfil his instructions. Please bless me that I may one day be successful.

    Sincerely

    Daniel

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  12. This is why God doesn't let people be omniscient, and this is why your argument falls apart. You assume as if you have experience with omniscience. Can you tell me what it's like to be omniscient? No? It's all philisophical meandering, not logic.

    One's omniscience does not contradict another's will on the basis that the one does not give omniscience to the other. As for God, nobody in his right mind can say something isn't comprehendable. If something is, it is. God says he is. "The Great I AM", not "I AM NOT." Everything can be measured scientifically, and whether or not we have the right tools is different question.
    But back to omniscience and free will. First, let's look at the word "free" and the word "will." Free means it was given without price. Will means, well, I want to do this, I'll try to do it. I'll give you a thought experiment. Let's say you know, with absolute certainty, that someone will go from point A to point B. You are nothing more than an observer. Does that person still have free will? YES. There is no correlation between the two. However, if said person wants to go from point A to point B, but is unable, you will wait for him to travel his able distance, THEN intervene. Congradulations, you have your omniscience while he has his free will.

    As for the idiot who said God approves of evil, consider this. If there is no evil, there is no good. If there is no pain, there is no pleasure in comparison. Without light, there is no dark. Without north, no south. What's the point of one thing without its polar opposite? If there is a God, then he does allow evil only as it paints good in contrast.

    Now, I can't say God has free will. I and nobody else seems to be in a position of authority to judge that. The fact that both the movement of electrons as well as people are so predictable to a superintelligence does NOT mean that people lack willpower.

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  13. if the creator of the universe is absolutely omniscient and omnipotent, then the very concept of freewill is meaningless.

    Even prior to the creation of our universe our course of action would have been predetermined from all possible courses of action.

    Our creator would have had absolutely no choice but to have already known every possible outcome and would have chosen in advance the specific set of outcomes which would in fact come about. And it would be impossible for us to act otherwise,even if the course of action predetermined for any of us has been deemed as forbidden in the bible.

    in other words, everything that we think we have chosen,with our free will, is just merely a path that was already chosen for us in advance from which it would be impossible for us to deviate,no matter how much we might want to avoid the punishment believed to come with picking the wrong path.

    In fact, if such a creator exists, and you find some part of yourself agreeing with this statement,it is because your agreement was already predetermined by that creator before the creation even happened.

    this problem can only be avoided if it is acknowledged that our creator is not absolutely omniscient nor omnipotent,it instead must be a limited being,even as powerful as that being would need to be,in order to create our universe.

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  14. Anonymous10:41 PM

    This is what the God of heaven and earth says about himself:
    "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
    Are we so arrogant in our ability to understand everything? Just because we can't explain this "paradox" does not mean that it can't be true. Imagine how it would be to explain the concept of electricity, computer, etc, to someone who lives 500 or 1000 years ago.

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  15. This is what a character in a book written by nomadic bronze age sheepherders says about himself:

    Fixed that for you.

    Are we so arrogant in our ability to understand everything? Just because we can't explain this "paradox" does not mean that it can't be true. Imagine how it would be to explain the concept of electricity, computer, etc, to someone who lives 500 or 1000 years ago.

    What I don't get is, if you feel so sure that this is beyond our barest comprehension, what makes you think that the information you have is enough to make you think it exists?

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  16. Ahhhh thats a really silly example of the Paradox. But the Answer Is very simple. See the whole Paradox stimulates from the notion of "Time".This is a major flaw that Atheist have over looked... Refer to Einstein Speaical theory of relativity: All of time is repetitive to movement and more important to each individual. However a Omniscience God ,has to be static and cannot have a constraint of Time. So if you choose A over option B, you did it at your own *Relative time". But in A perspective of a Omniscience God, all the decisions you have ever made, ever will make , deicsions your grandparents makes, or your grandchildren make happen all at the same time. what you consider a linear time line to a Omis
    -cience God is one big dot. Now those freewill still exists. Yes of course it does ,God didn't force you to make the decisions. Is God still PERFECT, yes.

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  17. Robert,

    You don't seem to have addressed anything the post actually said. Your response concluded that people still have free will, whereas what I said (in this three year old post) is that an omniscient being such as God wouldn't have free will.

    Refer to Einstein Speaical theory of relativity: All of time is repetitive to movement and more important to each individual.

    Speaking as a former undergrad physics major, you've made quite a lot of gibberish out of what special relativity actually says.

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  18. Well I was refering to the actual Paradox, not the one you conjured up, because that one is irrational to say the least. But to answer that Question , I stated that an Omniscience God would be Static, that means without any sort of movement. There would be no decision making, all would be known.The Paradox of him choosing an Apple from a Orange would not work what so ever.See the thing is you can not give a Omniscience God , the characteristics of a average man and expect to come out with any sensible argument. .. Thats why you were able to manifest such a outrageous paradox out of thin air. And that's why I said its silly. People are faced with Nth number of possiblites and make decisions from those possibilities . However a all knowing God knows all Truth at All time , therefor the idea of possibilities is removed. You than your left with that age old question "Does God Play dice ".And if your considering a all knowing God ,the answer is No. Does God have free will? Let me ask you something, if you know all the answers to a test, does that mean you can't answer the test freely? Your example was as silly as that question. The actual God vs Freewill Paradox made more sense , than your rendition. And those who support you , are just hype because they are anti Creationism, not that they understand the argument. because if they did , they would consider it irrational

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  19. Actually I understand your argument now , sorry I think I overthought myself . Here is the equation right
    (Omniscience <---> ~Freewill) . Give me a minute ,im going to figure it out. My apologies

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  20. If it helps at all, someone who is simultaneously omniscient and omnipotent seems directly equivalent, a la Godel, to a formal system that is both complete and consistent. A system "S" can neither accept nor reject the statement "I cannot be proven within S." If it can be proved within S, then it is false, hence S is inconsistent. If it cannot be proved within S, then S is unable to incorporate a true statement and is therefore inconsistent.

    This isn't a semantic trick; it's a fundamental principle of logic that was determined in the last century.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems

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  21. Let me just clarify that I am not a Christian, but I share the belief that God is omniscient.

    With all due respect, I think of your argument as shallow and depthless.

    I can understand why you might try to argue humans' free will, but for you to argue God's?! That is down right rediculous, for lack of a better term. God Is not supposed to be, in any way, like a human. He is unlike anything you can imagine, so when you put Him into meaningless words, not to mention portray Him as human-like, you have lost all God's characteristics. Your argument, therefore, has no basis whatsoever.

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  22. With all due respect, I think of your argument as shallow and depthless.

    With an equal amount of respect, I assure you that the feeling is mutual.

    I can understand why you might try to argue humans' free will, but for you to argue God's?! That is down right rediculous, for lack of a better term. God Is not supposed to be, in any way, like a human. He is unlike anything you can imagine, so when you put Him into meaningless words, not to mention portray Him as human-like, you have lost all God's characteristics. Your argument, therefore, has no basis whatsoever.

    So if I'm reading you right, since free will is a human characteristic and God doesn't have human characteristics, God cannot have free will.

    Thanks for agreeing with me!

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  23. Anonymous4:06 PM

    I think the problem with the paradox is in the definition of Omniscience and its implication for God's power. The paradox arguement assumes that:
    1. Omniscience is defined as the ability to know an absolutely "fixed" future.
    2. If God does not know this absolutely fixed future, God is not powerful, and therefore not God.

    This is not what bible means (even though I am not religious).

    a) According to the bible, God has the power to force everything the way he wants, but he choose not to. This is understandable. For example, we can totally control the result of the throw of a dice, by artifically manipulating the resutls. But we still throw it in a random way. While we can artifically make it give us the number we want, that is not as fun as if we throw it randomly and get what we want. Similarly, while God can control everything, he chooses not to sometimes. So, he gives human some power to control themselves. This does not mean God is powerless.

    b) Omniscience in many cases in bible seems to mean that God knows the consequences of the choices human make, and he knows a person's choice when he/she made it. In this way, the future is not "absolutely fixed" as stated in the paradox, and God gives up absolute omniscience because he loves human and because absolutely omniscience may be boring.

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  24. Samaritan4:13 AM

    I am a Christ follower - I don't know about Bible beater. The fallacy of this argument as I see it is that it assumes that because God "knows" what we will do, He will influence to do that. God's knowledge of my choice of A does not deny me the choice of B. deut 30:19 God lays out the paths for life and death Israelietes and says now "choose life". He knew precisely on that day how many of them would choose death, but He offered life. He knew how many would choose death - yet they could have gone along with the others to choose death. The definition of Free will in my understanding is not that we are allowed to change our minds having known or seen the consequences. Free will is the ability choose between two options and living with the consequences of either. If a hoopster were to know precisely which of his shots would go in and which wouldn't, he simply could avoid making those shots. But that's not free will - that is deliberate action based on a known result. Free will would be to know that there is an element oc chance and still take it.

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  25. Samaritan, you wrote:

    "The fallacy of this argument as I see it is that it assumes that because God 'knows' what we will do, He will influence to do that."


    I don't think you read the post thoroughly. The argument wasn't about the fact that God knows what people will do. It's that God knows what God will do.

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  26. So, with all due respect Russell, I find this to be the least convincing atheist argument ever. Thunderf00t made a similar argument on Youtube lately, and it's annoying me a teensy bit.

    And I'm not the only one, by the by. To be clear, I'm an atheist, so my goal here isn't to tell you "You're wrong!" but to help you refine your argument...through a peer review of sorts.

    Let's go back to your example of knowing what I'm going to eat for breakfast, then deciding not to do whatever I see my future self doing. Your point is that this would be impossible if I truly had omniscience, as if I was omniscient, I would know exactly what I'm going to eat, despite my choices.

    Now, here's why this is silly: If I know what I'm going to eat, then I know that when I decide to do exactly what my future self doesn't do, I know already what that decision will indeed be. So when I say, "I'm going to decide not to eat what my future self eats" I SHOULD, effectively, as I'm omniscient...already know I'm going to do that.

    Free will doesn't constitute being able to escape prediction, it simply means I'm going to excercise choice. For instance, if I know I'm going to snap my fingers in 30 seconds, it doesn't mean I don't have the free will to not snap my fingers, it just means I know that I'm going to exercise my free will in 30 seconds and snap my fingers.

    HOWEVER! I do think that you're on the right track here for another argument, and that's the fact that omniscience and OMNIPOTENCE cannot coexist.

    If I may tweak your argument a bit. Back to the breakfast example. If I know I'm going to eat oatmeal, then I lack the ability to do something else. I lack the ability to change what I know already to be the case. Now you view this to be a violation of free will, but as I've stated above, such is not necessarily the case. It DOES fly straight in the face of being able to 'do anything'. If I know, for example, that a hurricane is going to hit New Orleans...I lack the ability to stop it from happenning. Which means that the usual cop out: "Oh, but omnipotence just means you can do everything logically possible" doesn't work either. Since, of course, stopping a hurricane is nothing like making a square triangle.

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  27. I don't see why your response changes my point.

    If I know what I'm going to eat, then I know that when I decide to do exactly what my future self doesn't do, I know already what that decision will indeed be. So when I say, "I'm going to decide not to eat what my future self eats" I SHOULD, effectively, as I'm omniscient...already know I'm going to do that.

    You might KNOW that you're going to do that, but the fact that you can't do anything about it makes you not omnipotent. Free will's got nothing to do with it. I should be able to peer into the future and then do the exact opposite of what I see myself doing. If I can't do that, I'm not omnipotent.

    Let's look at it without the omnipotence but with some time travel instead. I travel one minute into the future, I see myself having oatmeal for breakfast, I refuse to do this but have eggs instead. Can I do this? Depends on your model of time travel. If I can do this then at the very least, there's a branching timeline that negates what I saw.

    But an omnipotent being must have this option, or else he is unable to do everything.

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  28. Um...Well...I think if I quote you, I can demonstrate what my point was:

    "You might KNOW that you're going to do that, but the fact that you can't do anything about it makes you not omnipotent. Free will's got nothing to do with it. I should be able to peer into the future and then do the exact opposite of what I see myself doing. If I can't do that, I'm not omnipotent."

    If it has nothing to do with free will...then why did you name it "Paradox of omniscience and free will"? I mean, all you really did was expound on my point that the paradox is REALLY between Omniscience and omnipotence, not free will.

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  29. Anonymous5:01 PM

    But if he had to look into the future to see what he had for breakfast, would that not mean in the present he did not even possess omniscience?

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  30. Anonymous2:13 AM

    Does 2+2=4 think about what it has for breakfast? The Universe is what it is, existence just another part of the all encompassing formula of matter and how it is arranged. Time is relative, meaning it flows differently for each viewer. Perhaps time does not flow at all for the Universe or (insert name of your creator, God, etc.). If the Universe is an equation, albeit a complicated one, it still cannot make 2+2 equal anything else than 4. It has no free will and neither do we who are bound by its rules. But that may be only in our own Universe. The choices we are presented with on a daily basis could possibly spawn a whole array of parallel Universes, complete with us making different choices. This would be a form of free will, a considerable detachment of choice, but at least we would know that somewhere, somehow, we were capable of saying yes or no, that our lives weren't written in stone. If MWT isn't right, then everything that has happened in time and space in our linear view, is just the way we've observed it, we can only see the tree, not the forest. Everything has already happened in the past and future, our timeline has been cemented like a copyrighted book in which we are the unassuming characters finding out our destinies. Whether a god is involved or not, free will cannot exist without the possibility of us making different choices with regard to time and space.

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