Free Will (Part 3): How Can It Be That God Knows Everything, Yet Man Has Free Will?

This essay is one installment in a larger series on Bechirah Chofshis/Free Will which you can read here.

We can now turn to address the question that lies at the heart of any discussion of Free Will — how can it both be true that God knows the future, and that humans have free choice to act how they choose? Rambam poses our problem as follows:

Mishneh Torah,Teshuvah 5:5:

שֶׁמָּא תֹּאמַר וַהֲלֹא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יוֹדֵעַ כָּל מַה שֶּׁיִּהְיֶה וְקֹדֶם שֶׁיִּהְיֶה יֵדַע שֶׁזֶּה יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק אוֹ רָשָׁע אוֹ לֹא יֵדַע. אִם יֵדַע שֶׁהוּא יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיֶה צַדִּיק וְאִם תֹּאמַר שֶׁיֵּדַע שֶׁיִּהְיֶה צַדִּיק וְאֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה רָשָׁע הֲרֵי לֹא יֵדַע הַדָּבָר עַל בֻּרְיוֹ.

Perhaps you will object: Does not the Holy one, blessed be He!, know all that which is to happen? He therefore either must have known, even before it came to pass, that such and such a man would be righteous or wicked, or He must not have known it; now if he knew that such a man would be righteous, then it was impossible for him not to be righteous; for if we were to say: that although He knew that he would be a righteous man, it was still possible for him to be a wicked man, then He did not know the thing to perfection!?

Rambam is here asking our very question: How can it be that God knows a certain man will be righteous, and also that said person has free choice to either be, or not be, righteous? Rambam begins his answer to the age-old question:

דַּע שֶׁתְּשׁוּבַת שְׁאֵלָה זוֹ אֲרֻכָּה מֵאֶרֶץ מִדָּה וּרְחָבָה מִנִּי יָם וְכַמָּה עִקָּרִים גְּדוֹלִים וַהֲרָרִים רָמִים תְּלוּיִים בָּהּ אֲבָל צָרִיךְ אַתָּה לֵידַע וּלְהָבִין בְּדָבָר זֶה שֶׁאֲנִי אוֹמֵר. כְּבָר בֵּאַרְנוּ בְּפֶרֶק שֵׁנִי מֵהִלְכוֹת יְסוֹדֵי הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ מִדֵּעָה שֶׁהִיא חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ כִּבְנֵי אָדָם שֶׁהֵם וְדַעְתָּם שְׁנַיִם. אֶלָּא הוּא יִתְעַלֶּה שְׁמוֹ וְדַעְתּוֹ אֶחָד

Know that with regard to the discussion of this problem, “the measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea,” and that many principles of the greatest importance, and of sublime magnitude are pending thereon, but the following remark must be well considered: We have already explained in the second Chapter of Yesodei HaTorah that the Holy One, blessed be He!, does not know things by a knowledge distinct from Himself, as men do; for they and their knowledge are two distinct things; but He, whose name be exalted!, and His knowledge, are One.

Rambam points out how important and fundamental, but complicated our question is. An almost un-readable amount has been written on the subject by all sorts of authors, thinkers, and philosophers throughout the ages. Rambam’s solution to the problem, though, is that there is no problem at all, as we shall see. Put another way, we simply cannot actually say that there is a problem here because it would have to be based on premises that are beyond our comprehension, or simply wrong. Rambam directs our attention to his lengthier discussions elsewhere on the subject of God’s knowledge, but summarizes it here for us by stating that — unlike Man and his knowledge, which are two separate things — God and his knowledge are One. A proper understanding of this truth will neutralize, so to speak, the problem of Free Will.

While this concept is not at all a simple one, Rambam does not spell it out completely for us, nor connect all the dots, as to how exactly this resolves the problem (or, rather, removes the problem in the first place), so let’s take the time now to do all of that.

God’s Knowledge Is Different

As we have explained at length in our previous installment, God does not “know” things in the same manner as humans do. God’s knowledge of anything is not because He internalizes something outside of Himself, but rather, He and His knowledge are One. All God knows He knows because He knows Himself. What this means is that God “knows the future” not because He internalized something outside of Himself in the present that will cause something else in the future. This is indeed how humans would potentially know something about the future, but not God. God knows what “Person X” will do tomorrow not because what Person X will do tomorrow has some cause external to God in the present that God recognized and internalized. Rather, God knows Person X’s future simply because all of existence in the first place is an expression of God’s Self, and God knows Himself!

This is a radically different way of seeing things from how people usually frame and address the question of Free Will, but, as Rambam explains, that doesn’t make it any less true. Indeed, when things are understood to be as we have just framed them, there is no question or contradiction at all; Rambam elegantly diffuses the question altogether.

Explaining Rambam

Allow me to explain: If it was true of God that He knows what will happen in the future because of something He internalizes in the present, we would indeed conclude that there is something in reality that will cause/force Person X to, let’s say, sin. God knows this hidden cause, even though Person X does not, and therefore we can conclude that Person X no longer has any Free Will in the matter and will unavoidably sin in the future. This problem of Free Will standing in contradiction to God’s foreknowledge arises when we define God’s knowledge like Man’s — as the internalization of external phenomena. This would mean that there must be some sort of phenomena in the present that will invariably and unavoidably cause a certain future. This would, of course, be a problem of determinism, and thus our paradox between God’s knowledge and Man’s Free Will. The thing is, though, that God’s knowledge does not work by internalizing external phenomena, and thus, the fact that God “knows” the future does not allow us to conclude that there is any sort of external phenomena in reality now that causes that future.

Here is an example: If I see Person X jump into the air, I can conclude that, without a doubt, Person X will return to the ground. This is because I have internalized a number of phenomena in the present reality (external to myself) that will unavoidably bring about that future: Person X jumping into the air, together with the force of gravity, will absolutely cause Person X to return back to the earth (assuming everything remains constant). Person X has no free choice in the matter. It’s not my knowledge of the future outcome that removes the Free Will from Person X. Rather, it’s the various phenomena that I observed, that brought me to the point of knowledge, that remove Free Will from Person X. There is a cause in the present that will without question bring about the particular future of Person X returning to the earth, and I know that cause. Indeed, if any human knows something for certain, it must be that there is some cause or reason that this person is privy to that will bring about whatever it is he or she knows for certain. Thus, even if everyone else is unaware of what the cause is right now, we assume that since there is knowledge, there is a cause, and that, therefore, the outcome is unavoidable and there is no Free Will in the matter.

What needs to be made clear at this point is that even certain knowledge of the future is never what actually removes Free Will. Rather, it is whatever cause the knowledge is predicated on that removes the Free Will. In our example with Person X above, it is not my knowledge that Person X will unavoidably fall back to the earth that removes his Free Will in the matter. Rather, it is the force of gravity in this situation that I am aware of that is removing the Free Will. And so on, and so forth, with any certain knowledge of any future event. However, while the conclusion that since there is certain knowledge there is no Free Will is correct when dealing with human knowledge, it simply does not hold true when transferred to God.

Answering The Question

Why do we see God’s foreknowledge as removing Free Will? Why do we think these things are paradoxical?

We see these things as problematic because we mistakenly consider God’s knowledge to be just like Man’s — namely, that He knows about some cause in reality (that we don’t) that will unavoidably bring about a certain future, removing Free Will from the equation. We incorrectly assume that God’s knowledge of the future has removed all Free Will because we incorrectly assume that His knowledge is predicated on some cause that makes the particular future unavoidable. This, however, is simply untrue. God knows the future not because He is privy to some cause that we are not. Rather, He knows the future simply because He knows Himself (as discussed above).

As Rambam explains, all questions and paradoxes predicated on God’s knowledge of the future are based on the faulty premise that God’s knowledge is merely quantitatively more than Man’s — God is some sort of super-analyst able to see even the tiniest cause and determine its future effect with perfect accuracy. If this were indeed true, the question of Free Will as being contradictory to God’s knowledge would stand, as this would mean that there actually does exist a cause in the present that God has internalized and that will bring about a particular future. However, as we explained, this is not the case, and thus the question of the paradox of God’s knowledge and Free Will does not even get off the ground. God does not know the future because He is aware of some cause in the present. Rather, God and His knowledge are One; there are no external causes to speak of as removing Free Will.

More Questions

As we have shown, Rambam explains that there is no contradiction in God knowing the future, and humans still possessing Free Will. Since we do not know what knowledge means relative to God, to go on and ask about the properties of this knowledge is absurd. Knowledge, when we speak of God, is nothing more than a borrowed term, and that is as far as the discussion can go.

Of course, we are then left with the question of how does God know things, exactly? By what mechanisms does His knowledge work, and how are we to understand it? Sure, to some extent Rambam has diffused the question, but he has also created a whole slew of new ones.

Rambam addresses this issue as well:

וְאֵין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם יְכוֹלָה לְהַשִּׂיג דָּבָר זֶה עַל בֻּרְיוֹ. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁאֵין כֹּחַ בָּאָדָם לְהַשִּׂיג וְלִמְצֹא אֲמִתַּת הַבּוֹרֵא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לג כ) "כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי" כָּךְ אֵין כֹּחַ בָּאָדָם לְהַשִּׂיג וְלִמְצֹא דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל הַבּוֹרֵא. הוּא שֶׁהַנָּבִיא אָמַר (ישעיה נה ח) "כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְרָכָי". וְכֵיוָן שֶׁכֵּן הוּא אֵין בָּנוּ כֹּחַ לֵידַע הֵיאַךְ יֵדַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים וְהַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲבָל נֵדַע בְּלֹא סָפֵק שֶׁמַּעֲשֵׂה הָאָדָם בְּיַד הָאָדָם וְאֵין הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מוֹשְׁכוֹ וְלֹא גּוֹזֵר עָלָיו לַעֲשׂוֹת כָּךְ. וְלֹא מִפְּנֵי קַבָּלַת הַדָּת בִּלְבַד נוֹדַע דָּבָר זֶה אֶלָּא בִּרְאָיוֹת בְּרוּרוֹת מִדִּבְרֵי הַחָכְמָה.

Now this idea, the mind of man is not able to comprehend; and in the same way as it is not in the power of man to comprehend or to find out the essentiality of the Creator, as it is said: “For there shall no man see Me, and live, (Exod. 33. 20),” so neither is it in the power of man to comprehend or fathom the KNOWLEDGE of the Creator (i. e. the manner in which He knows things); this is what the prophet says: “FOR MY THOUGHTS ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS, neither are your ways My ways, (Isai. 55. 8);” now this being the fact, it must be admitted that we have not the power of understanding how the Holy One, blessed be He!, knows all creatures and their doings; but this we undoubtedly know, that the actions of man are in his own power, and that the Holy One, blessed be He!, neither forces him nor predetermines his actions. This fact is not ascertained by revelation only, but also by clear scientific demonstrations.

As humans, we do our best to understand God by converting the Divine into the human experience. This is the reason why all sorts of questions arise in the first place. We start by borrowing a term, and misappropriating it to God. Over time, we come to see this inaccurate term as describing how God really is. The age-old contradiction at the heart of Free Will lies in language, and the use of borrowed terms not properly understood. We must understand our limitations as humans, such that we are not even able to ask certain questions because they are based on faulty premises, and we do not understand the required premises enough to ask.

וּמִפְּנֵי זֶה נֶאֱמַר בַּנְּבוּאָה שֶׁדָּנִין אֶת הָאָדָם עַל מַעֲשָׂיו כְּפִי מַעֲשָׂיו אִם טוֹב וְאִם רַע וְזֶה הוּא הָעִקָּר שֶׁכָּל דִּבְרֵי הַנְּבוּאָה תְּלוּיִין בּוֹ:

In consequence of this principle it was announced to us in prophecy, that a man will be judged for all his actions, according to their nature, whether they be good or evil; this being the principle on which all the words of prophecy are based.

Rambam concludes his discussion of Free Will by reminding us that Man is judged for his actions, as they are his, and his alone. It is to this that we will turn our attention in the next installment of this series.

Addendum

To conclude this essay it is worthwhile to quote Rambam from both Teshuvot HaRambam and Iggerot HaRambam in which he speaks about his understanding of Free Will and how to square it with various passages throughout Chazal:

And anyone who abandons the matters that we explained, which are constructed upon foundations of the world, and goes and searches in a aggadah or in a midrash or in the words of one of the ge’onim of blessed memory, until he finds a word through whose plain meaning he will refute our words, which are words of sense and understanding — is but knowingly committing suicide [lit. destroying himself]. And it is sufficient [punishment] for him what he does [thereby] to his own soul.

Teshuvot HaRambam, II, 715-16 [Response 436]; also in Iggerot HaRambam, I, 236-37)

While there are surely various passages throughout Chazal that might seem to say things that are contrary to what Rambam has explained above, this cannot be the case a what Rambam has explained in regards to Free Will must, by definition, be true, as there is no logical alternative. There is no fancy footwork that Rambam employs, just basic logical reasoning built one step at a time. There are no “sources” needed to arrive at Rambam’s conclusion. He is simply outlining the necessary logical conclusions one must come to after understanding certain fundamental truths about God. Thus, no words of Chazal would or could contradict this. Only on to of Rambam’s conclusions can the words of Chazal be read.

Living with an improper understanding of these matters, says Rambam, is punishment enough for one who refuses to see the truth.

Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant-garde, with A Note About Academic Bible Scholarship