Free will and foreknowledge

Joseph Smith (JS) seemed comfortable postulating both that mankind generally, with exceptions, have free choice (at least internal moral choice) and that God has perfect foreknowledge. Although perhaps the latter can be (and has been) debated in some sense. Of course there are more complex shades of meaning here.

The reason I bring it up? Last Sunday in my high priest group we were discussing one of the JS lessons on redemption of the dead. One of my compatriots, a fellow BYU faculty member, remarked that the complete foreknowledge of God was a fact and that freedom of choice was a fact and therefore the two are compatible. (Sounds a bit Gödellian…)

I did not feel like pointing out that if you pursue both axioms, you will find what seem to be real contradictions. If the future is fixed, then every future choice is fixed, they have been made already in effect-deliberation is empty-maybe. I noticed that at least some people there offered some unasked for reasoning here, sensing a difficulty perhaps. God knows us so well, he is able to predict our actions, etc.

It seems to me that to avoid a problem here, or to see if there is a problem, one must become mathematically precise in defining terms, or cast the whole thing into a formal system. I’m not sure this is possible in the sense of mathematical proof. Dissenters would abound. (Dissenters in regard to formal systems abound for that matter.)

JS was flexible I think when it came to his own reasoned positions. A good example of this was his 1832 revelation on the second advent. He gradually changed his personal interpretation of its meaning over the years it seems.

The prophetic mind seems committed to the foreknowledge of God, enough it seems to me to impact the notion of libertarian free will. The anti-Calvinist in me rejects canceling free will (there is a leap there, but JS connects them at least implicitly).

When I was an undergraduate student, I sat in institute class with a bearded John Tvedtnes (of course my memory may be completely wrong here). I remember him responding to the instructor who brought up this conundrum, with something like: we are self-determined, our infinite past captures us in such a way that we are predictable (let alone the rest of the world). At the time I thought about it alot, but I’m not sure I like it – compatibilist – no go for me I think. (Hi John, if you’re out there).

I expressed none of this in the (high priest) class because the teacher was already in tears over some memory *he* had and it was certainly tangential to the manual driven subject.

6 Responses to Free will and foreknowledge

  1. Geoff J says:

    Yep, the libertarian free will and exhaustive foreknowledge are in fact incompatible. Of course JS was no trained philosopher so it is not surprising that he didn’t uncover that (since he was busy with more important things). But when push comes to shove between the two (as it eventually does) choosing LFW is a no-brainer.

  2. Eric Nielson says:

    I will choose a path that’s clear. I will choose free will.

  3. boaporg says:

    Historically, I find the approach of the Anti-mission Baptists interesting. Hard Calvinists, they believe missionary work to be an empty exercise. Those who are saved are saved, the rest are born to Satan. The sect still survives in several places. It is a wonderfully practical approach to the position.

    Eric and Geoff, I take it you’re not onboard!


  4. Joseph (not Smith) says:

    The two need not be contradictive. There was an assumption made that isn’t needed. “God has perfect foreknowledge” but that doesn’t have to mean that “the future is fixed”. I have the opportunity to choose what to eat for supper. God knows what I will choose. I can still choose what I will have tonight and tomorrow and the next day and my choices can vary. The fact that God knows what I am going to choose doesn’t force me to choose one way or the other. If God told me I was going to have spaghetti that would force an outcome. Then the future would certainly be fixed. But that God knows I will choose spaghetti does not force it to happen, it only means he knows. If I chose pizza instead it would only mean He knew that I would.

    • boaporg says:

      Joseph (not Smith),

      I think your view is a common one and has been argued extensively in more than one book on the subject. However, if God knows what the future holds in every detail, and yet man has what is called libertarian free will (LFW), then a given person may, at dinner if you like, make any number of choices. Suppose God “knows” you will have pizza. Is it possible for you to choose pot roast? LFW would say that the possibility exists. That possibility prevents absolute surety in knowing what ends up on the table. When we say God knows what’s for dinner, even when our minds are not made up, there is just no way to pick something else. The future is determined by itself if you will. The space-time manifold is fixed and we just walk our trajectories on it.

      Assuming that God’s knowledge of it is perfect, as I think you are saying, this is the result.

      But there are other deep problems with this idea that lead to conclusions many people are not willing to accept.

      In short one is left with the denial of the future God knows (i.e. that the future is in some sense unknowable) or that man is not truly free to make arbitrary decisions. One or the other must go in some way. The literature on the issue is huge so I cannot do justice to it here. I can point you to some preliminary discussions of the matter if you want. There are lots of ways out of the dilemma, but they involve some sacrifice of one or both positions.

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