A Theistic Response to Dan Barker’s “Free Will Argument for the Nonexistence of God.”

by John Limanto


November 11, 2017

Abstract: Dan Barker has put forth a purportedly destructive objection against the existence of the Judeo-Christian God from what he perceives as an incompatibility between an all-knowing God and the existence of free will. This essay will scrutinize the claim that God’s free-will is incompatible with his omniscience and that the so-called Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) is necessary for free will. The kind of free will assumed in this essay is Libertarian Free Will (LFW).

Source: https://ffrf.org/legacy/about/bybarker/fang.php

Before Barker, similar arguments have been made for the incompatibility of libertarian free will and the existence of true future propositions (whether these propositions are known by an omniscient God or not) by figures such as Aristotle,1 Nelson Pike (1965),2 and more recently, by Ted Warfield (1997).3 As we will observe later, this type of argument bears little merit. But even further, this is not the only argument that Barker has posited for the non-existence of the Judeo-Christian God in his article. Rather, Barker has also proposed an argument based on the necessity of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) to LFW, which also seems to fail.

Deductive Summary of Barker’s Main Argument
In the website Freedom from Religion Foundation, Dan Barker presented the following summary of his argument:

“A being who knows everything can have no “state of uncertainty.” It knows its choices in advance. This means that it has no potential to avoid its choices, and therefore lacks free will. Since a being that lacks free will is not a personal being, a personal being who knows everything cannot exist. Therefore, the Christian God does not exist.”4

To put it in deductive form:

(1) A being that lacks free will is not a personal being
(2) Principle of Alternative Possibilities is necessary for free will.
(3) An omniscient being knows its choices in advance, which entails that an omniscient being has no potential to avoid its choices
(4) God, if he exists, is necessarily omniscient, free and personal
(5) If God is omniscient, he cannot have free will (from (2) and (3))
(6) If God does not have free will, he cannot be personal (from (1), (2) and (3))
(7) Therefore, God does not exist

This argument seems to have its intellectual bastion in premise (3). Indeed, if (3) can be rebutted, then we have successfully nullified the other important premises (premises (5) and (6)).

So then, is (3) necessary? I do not think so. Let us dissect (3) even further:

(8) An omniscient being knows its choices in advance
(9) An omniscient being has no potential to avoid its choices

Such syllogism is logically incomplete. There are implied, or at least, hidden premises; that is to say, there are premises that are not explicitly stated. In order for Barker to claim that there is incompatibility between the two propositions, he needs to show a formal contradiction. An example would be a series of propositions C, where C:

(10) if all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal
(11) all men are mortal
(12) Socrates is not mortal

Such syllogism does lead to a formal contradiction. For given (10) and (11), (12’) ought to proceed by way of modus ponens.5

(12’) Socrates is mortal

However, we do not find such contradiction here. For what precludes an omniscient being to have a potential to avoid its choices in the future? Even further, we can add an additional premise following (8) that will positively disprove (9).

(13) An omniscient being decides its choices through its will logically prior to the foreknowledge of its own choices.

As simple as that and premise (3) evaporates. The theist can easily here affirm that when we dissect God’s knowledge into logical steps, his volitional choices precede foreknowledge of his own choices. How could one account for such steps in the knowledge of God? A plausible model can be derived from the theological position known as Molinism.

Molinism and God’s Knowledge
Molinism is a model of omniscience that tries to reconcile the idea of God’s sovereignty in providence and creaturely free choices. The tools that Molinism provides will indeed be beneficial for our present discussion. Molinism differentiates between two types of knowledge in God: pre-volitional and volitional knowledge. The former is a knowledge that does not involve the will of God and the latter is a knowledge generated by the will of God. For example,  consider God’s knowledge of proposition P

(P) it is now the case that world w1 is actualized

Such knowledge clearly derives its truth-value from God’s volition. God chooses to make world w1 and thus proposition P becomes realized. But suppose that preceding proposition P is proposition P’ such that,

(P’) w1 is a possible world

P’ is not a knowledge that stems out of God’s will, but he knows from eternity whether or not P’ is a possible world or an impossible world independent of his will. Why is this distinction important? P is an example of what the 16th century Jesuit Luis de Molina as part of God’s ‘natural knowledge’ while P’ is an example of what is called ‘free knowledge.’

Natural knowledge, by definition, is God’s knowledge of all possibilities and necessities. Thus, God would know mathematical and logical truths according to his natural knowledge. God knows these independent of him willing them. Thus, “2+2=4” is not determined by God, but he simply finds these truths to be true.

On the other hand, God has free knowledge, which is grounded in what God would ordain to come to pass. Therefore, he determines the truth-values of some propositions. Some examples of his free knowledge include: “Japan surrendered in the world war II in 1945,” “Jones will be drinking coffee for his breakfast in 2001,” etc. All of these consist of knowledge that result after the free determination of God’s free will.

In logical order, natural knowledge comes first before God’s free knowledge. Thus, contrary to Barker, (8) seems to be false. It is ambiguous what he means by God knowing his choices “in advance.” Assuming this means that God knows his choices logically prior to his volitional choices, then the statement is simply not true. Logically, God first chooses and then gains knowledge of the actual world; however, it should be clarified that God’s decision, and hence his knowledge, are eternal.

But perhaps this is not what Barker is claiming. Perhaps he is claiming that an omniscient being, would first (independent of his volition) know what he would certainly do in different circumstances, that he would certainly create free creatures, and what free creatures would do—thus, he would not be able to do otherwise. But even such an approach proves to be fruitless. For the theist can further aver that God does not possess such knowledge (knowledge of what he would do in different circumstances) prior to his volition. Perhaps, such a knowledge is gained logically posterior to his actual choices. God would then produce such a knowledge by his free choices. This then seems to undercut the objection that it is impossible for God to be free if his pre-volitional knowledge includes incorrigible knowledge of what he would do in different circumstances.6 Even more, it is fallacious to say that God would not be able to do otherwise in such a circumstance; God simply would not do otherwise. This in no way implies that he cannot do otherwise.

God’s Free Will and PAP
Barker also seems to question God’s free will on the basis of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (from which I shall now call, ‘PAP’). This is also expressed in premise (2). He claims,

Free will requires having more than one option, a desire to choose, freedom to choose (lack of obstacles), power to accomplish the choice (strength and aptitude), and the potential to avoid the option…If God always acts in accordance with his nature (whatever that means), then he still must have more than one viable option that does not contradict his nature if he is to claim free will. Otherwise, he is a slave to his nature, like a robot, and not a free personal agent. What would the word “option” mean to a being who created all options?7

It seems from this passage that Barker is questioning God’s free will based on premise (2). What is PAP? Barker defines,

“In order to have free will, you must have more than one option, each of which is avoidable.”8

This is very similar to how most philosophers would define PAP.9

First, we can inquire as to whether or not God seems to have more than one option. There are, of course, many cases in which God can act differently. For example, God could have chosen to not have created, God could have chosen to elect differently, or God could have chosen to create a different set of people in our world. However, there are clearly moments in which God could not have done otherwise. For example, a sinner that has refused to repent cannot be pardoned as per God’s holiness and God cannot sin in any circumstance. Should this be a problem for the theist?

The problem with PAP, however, is that it is not necessary for free will. In 1969, Harry Frankfurt proposed a ground-breaking, gettierian case as a counterexample for PAP:

“Suppose someone—Black, let us say—wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do…Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be quite unreasonable to excuse Jones for his action, or to withhold the praise to which it would normally entitle him, on the basis of the fact that he could not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to act as he did. He would have acted the same even if it had not been a fact. Indeed, everything happened without Black’s presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.”10

In short, since it can be demonstrated that there is a case in which free will can still intuitively be inferred without PAP, the necessity of PAP to free will must be false. Barker then goes on to ask,

“Some say that “free will” with God does not mean what it means with humans. But how are we to understand this? What conditions of free will would a Christian scrap in order to craft a “free agency” for God? Multiple options? Desire? Freedom? Power? Potential to avoid?”11

This is where we can introduce the next principle in philosophy of free will, first formulated by Robert Kane: Ultimate Responsibility (‘UR’). This principle is the key cornerstone in libertarian free will, I believe. I will summarize UR as the following:

(UR) An agent freely commits an act iff (if and only if) the agent is the ultimate originator of his action

To quote Kane, “to be ultimately responsible for the choice, according to U [the ‘U’ in ‘UR’], the agent must be responsible for the character and motives from which it issued, which in turn entails, according to R [the ‘R’ in ‘UR’], that some choices or actions the agent voluntarily or willingly performed in the past must have causally contributed to the agent’s having the character and motives he or she now has.”12 Thus, in this model of free will, a person can only be free in acting as long as he is the ‘first-mover’ of his action. The same can be applied to God—God is free if and only if his choices are made by him as the first-mover in his decision-making. Such a notion is indeed a possibility—thus answering Barker’s question, “What conditions of free will would a Christian scrap in order to craft a “free agency” for God?” Notice even further that UR is not a repudiation of PAP. Rather, PAP is a principle that emanates out of UR. Thus, it is not true that PAP is necessary for free will; alternate possibilities do sometimes appear—but such can only appear when UR allows it to be.

Barker ends with the following statement: “But until a god is defined coherently, and then proven to exist with evidence and sound reasoning, it is sensible not to think that such a being exists.”13 Barker ends his objection to theism with a resounding confidence that there has not been a way to coherently define God. Works of theistic philosophers in this seems to prove him to be miles away from the truth.14 To recall Barker’s contentions: 1) free will is incompatible with God’s omniscience and 2) Principle of Alternate Possibilities is necessary for free will are both erroneous. The former is easily eviscerated when we propose an alternate premise in support of that God logically chooses out of his volition first before free knowledge comes around. Meanwhile, the latter seems to be disqualified when we take into account the Frankfurtian analogies against PAP. We have here, thus, a defence of the coherence of theism on the front of omniscience and free will—contributing to Barker’s first stipulation. Contrary to Barker’s conclusion, the Judeo-Christian God’s omniscience is truly a coherent sine qua non.15


1Whitetaker, C. W. A. 1996. Aristotle’s De Interpretatione: Contradiction and Dialectic. New York: Oxford University Press Inc. 112.

2Pike, Nelson. 2001. God and Timelessness. Wipf & Stock.

3Warfield, Ted. 1997. Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom Are Compatible. JSTOR 80-86.

4Barker, Dan. n.d. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ffrf.org/legacy/about/bybarker/fang.php.

5Modus ponens is a rule of logic that goes in the form
(1) if p then q
(2) p
(3) therefore, q

6The knowledge of what free agents would do in different circumstances is called Scientia Media/Middle Knowledge (MK).

7Barker, Dan. n.d. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ffrf.org/legacy/about/bybarker/fang.php.


9Wilderker, David, and Michael Mckenna. 2016. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities: Essays on the Importance of Alternative Possibilities. Routledge. 17.

10Frankfurt, Harry G. 1969. Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Philosophy Documentation Center 829-839.

11Barker, Dan. n.d. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ffrf.org/legacy/about/bybarker/fang.php.

12Kane, Robert. 1998. The Significance of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press Inc. 35

13Barker, Dan. n.d. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://ffrf.org/legacy/about/bybarker/fang.php.

14Swinburne, Richard. 2016. The Coherence of Theism: Second Edition. Oxford University Press; Craig, William Lane, and J. P Moreland. 2017. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview: 2nd Edition. IVP Academic.

15“indispensable necessity”.


About the Author

by John Limanto

John A. Limanto is a fellow leader of Philosophy group in Pelita Harapan School and an aspiring Christian apologist in his local community. After living for 7 years in Borneo, he now resides with his family in Jakarta, Indonesia where he is pursuing his research on Molinism and free will.