Exploring Mormon Thought: The Homogeneous?

In chapter 8 of The Attributes of God, Ostler continues grappling with the question of human agency in relation to God’s foreknowledge. The professional literature generated by this kind of theological question is wide and deep and the field is no particular speciality of mine. On these kinds of questions, Ostler is much better read than I am.

The basic problem is this: “If there is anything in [an agent’s] circumstances which precludes a person from exercising a power, then the power cannot be exercised under those circumstances” (249). Blake argues that God’s strong foreknowledge is just the kind of  causally implicated circumstance that compromises a person’s freedom to exercise their agency. As a result, the power to choose in this instance is no real power and agency is compromised. I recommend a close reading of the chapter’s details.

As a non-specialist, though, I’m wondering about the larger context that frames these really difficult questions.

Both with respect to the larger question of whether agency is compatible with determinism and with respect to the narrower question of whether agency is compatible with God’s foreknowledge, the difficulty seems to me to revolve around a kind of figure/ground problem.

The figure/ground problem is this: how do the actions of a local figure fit with the generic background of conditions and circumstances that constitute its field of action? Or, more pointedly, how can the local exercise of a heterogeneous agency be compatible with a pre-existing field of homogeneous and comprehensive conditions?

With respect to the narrower issue of God’s foreknowledge, the question is: how can the heterogeneity of a local agency be compatible with a pre-existing field of conditions and circumstances already packaged, totalized, and homogenized by God’s absolute and limitless foreknowledge?

With respect to the wider issue of determinism, the question is: how can the heterogeneity of a local agency be compatible with a field of conditions and circumstances already pre-formatted as a single, homogeneous background of cause and effect?

In short, how can a local agent be invested with power to act freely and heterogeneously in relation to a homogeneous, pre-formatted field?

This is a really difficult question. It shows up again and again in philosophy in a thousand different forms.

I want to suggest, in what may be a naive way, that part of the problem here may be with the form of the question itself.

Blake, for instance, argues against God’s absolute foreknowledge on the grounds that, given the background of such a homogeneous, pre-formatted field, agency is compromised. The centrality of agency ought to trump our commitment to the existence of that kind of pre-formatted and totalized field of foreknowledge. So absolute foreknowledge is out. (I think this is right.)

But why not make the same argument in relation to the wider ontological question? Why not argue that agency ought to trump our assumption that actions unfold in the context of a field of conditions and circumstances already pre-formatted by a single, homogeneous background of cause and effect?

In short, why think about agency as something that unfolds in a single, smooth, field period?

What if there is no single, shared, pre-formatted, metaphysical background against which agency plays out? If the reality of agency is incompatible with the idea of such a field, then what if we ditched the field?

What’s the alternative?

There’s no space to give a very convincing answer here, but the alternative is roughly something like this.

Rather than agency playing out in relation to a single, shared, and pre-formatted field, agency plays out only in relation to other agents. There is no absolute figure/ground relation. There is no ultimate frame of reference. There are no agents interacting in a single field. There are just agents embedded in and acting in relation to other agents. Reality is agents all the way down (and all the way up). There is no meta-container, no set of all sets. There are only agents. To be sure, there are localized “fields” of action but these “fields” are themselves nothing but partially overlapping (and only partially commensurable) agents. Every “field” is local and every “field” is itself an agent (and/or composed of agents). There is no “global.”

The traditional notion is that the universe starts out whole and complete. The traditional problem is then how agency is possible. Note, especially, that, to the degree that agency does show up in this kind of world, it shows up only as sin – as something that breaks and kills the integrity of world such that the world needs to be saved.

Mormons don’t have to start with this assumption of an original unity or meta-contextual totality. What if we tried out the alternate scenario? Let’s begin instead with the assumption of a multitude of only partially compatible agencies that are not embedded in a single, prefabricated whole. Let’s assume that unity is not pre-given and then lost, but only painstakingly (and only ever partially) made by way of agency. Let’s assume that it may well be our job to try to put the universe together, but let’s not assume that it is our job to put it back together.

In this scenario, we may be able to not only make room for the existence of agency, but for its goodness as well.

61 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: The Homogeneous?

  1. It’s *an* alternative, if not *the* alternative, but what you’re doing here appears to me to make hash of the underpinnings of Western philosophical thinking, all the way back to Plato at least. Plus, no “ground of all being” is bound to make the Protestants howl. Loudly.

    Having said that, though, it mirrors the thinking of at least one Reform Jew I’ve become acquainted with over the years, who supposes that God created Mankind to be His partners in creation.

    But where does that leave any soteriological thinking? That is, in your alternative, what does Jesus do?

  2. Adam: Isn’t process philosophy in the vein of Whitehead and Hartshorne precisely the kind of no homogenous background and an ultimate reality constituted of agents that you suggest? In that respect, Orson Pratt’s implicit metaphysic is also a description of a process view.

    However, to the extent God embodies all experience of all realities within the scope of his knowledge, process thought posits that there is a meta-contextual totality that is known to God even if creativity of actual occasions is not circumscribed or fully explained by some totalizing context. So it seems that the concepts of a totalizing reality and of a background that fully explains can be (and should be) distinguished. One does not entail the other. However, there is no single grounding relation in process thought except to the extent that God’s initial aim is the basis for all creativity even if how that creativity plays out is not within God’s control.

  3. I was going to second Blake’s comments. It seems to me that every philosopher who adopts something like Leibniz’ relationism without adopting the idea of a single “best of all possible worlds” that drives the evolution of the system will have something similar. (I’d say that OOO is but one example of this)

  4. From Richard Sherlock’s review of Ostler on the Maxwell Institute website:

    “Ostler’s project is deeply important. Perhaps it signals the start of a true intellectually rigorous Mormon theological tradition that can stand on its own with other theologies like those of Thomism or, more recently, Karl Barth. Furthermore it might signal that we as a people are mature enough as a tradition to engage in robust theological conversations among ourselves. Such a development can only be welcomed. True faith is strong enough to withstand the most probing inquiry and analysis. It may well be the right time for Ostler’s project and the right time for others to engage him in dialogue.”

    Since this review appears on the Maxwell Institute website, I was wondering how you would respond, or how you think Ostler might respond, to the following statement by Elder Maxwell on God’s omniscience and mortal agency:

    “By foreseeing, God can plan and His purposes can be fulfilled, but He does this in a way that does not in the least compromise our individual free agency, any more than an able meteorologist causes the weather rather than forecasts it. Part of the reason for this is our forgetfulness of our earlier experiences and the present inaccessibility of the knowledge and understanding we achieved there. The basic reason, of course, is that, as we decide and act, we do not know what God knows. Our decisions are made in our context, not His.” (http://scottwoodward.org/Talks/html/Maxwell,%20Neal%20A/MaxwellNA_TheOmniscienceOfAnOmnipotentOmnilovingGod.html)

  5. Lucy: The question you ask is a good one. I would say that at the time that Elder Maxwell wrote the article in All These Things Shall Give us Experience that he believed that God had absolute foreknowledge and we cannot understand how that is consistent with free will. Elder Maxwell was a good friend of mine and we discussed this issue many times. I miss our discussions now that he is gone.

  6. So what you’re saying is that if God puts us onto a planet filled with various types of radiation, that will eventually kills us God does not know if we are dead or alive, because we are both dead -and- alive?

    Or is it the more accurately God knows about our character the more uncertainty gets introduced into what he knows about our position… err I mean decisions?

  7. I feel that absolute foreknowledge would not be some coercive act that takes freedom away. I would simply be evidence that there was no freedom to begin with.

  8. All this stuff is too hard for me. I’m satisfied with the simple understanding that (i) God sees all things, past, present, and future, and all things are under his control; (ii) God keeps his promises; (iii) our ways and understandings are not his ways and understandings; and (iv) I am free to act or to be acted upon, to choose life or death.

    I see no conflict between God’s foreknowledge and my agency.

    As the original poster observed, “the problem here may be with the form of the question itself” — the question assumes that (i) God CANNOT have absolute foreknowledge; and (ii) agency is THE central factor in God’s creation. Because I cannot adopt either of these premises as true, I’m left way behind in the ongoing discussion.

    But from a layman’s point of view (and a simple-minded layman at that), I tend to prefer Mr Miller’s alternative over what seems to be as Mr Ostler’s re-creation of God in man’s image — among men, in this sphere of our existence on this earth, we’re all agents interacting with other agents. “[A]gency plays out only in relation to other agents.”

  9. The existenced of agents with the ability to interact presupposes a ‘homogenous field.’

  10. Eric that’s a good point since the possibility of foreknowledge would have the same logical implication. The real question is whether the universe is the way Blake wants it to be. (I’m pretty skeptical myself)

  11. Adam, I don’t see how that follows. Assume you have monads that interact then any homogeneity in an area arises out of homogeneity in interactions but there’s no reason to assume each monad interacts with each other monad the same way. We assume homogeneity because we tend to see something akin to homogeneity in physics to a degree. (Symmetry breaking is of course important in physics but it tends to break in the same way across the universe in the ways we are concerned about – but in other ways of course there is a surprising lack of homogeneity in the universe but just not in ways that appear to matter in fundamental ways)

  12. Some responses:

    Rob #1 – I do intend to make a hash of the underpinnings of Western philosophical thinking ;)

    Blake #2 – I think that Whitehead is close in some respects to this picture. I just want to also try ruling out the exception in process thought that you note.

    Clark #12 – I was about to object that you were actually agreeing with me when I realized you were agreeing with me and that your comment was directed to Adam Greenwood :)

  13. Since I read Blake’s book and saw his proof for showing how it is not possible for God to have a robust foreknowledge and we still have LFW, I no longer believe God has that kind of foreknowledge. At least, until someone refutes his proof. :)

  14. CEF, there always is just the answer that we don’t have LFW yet are responsible. Of course Blake elsewhere argues against semi-compatibilism on the basis of it being unjust for God to punish us if we were morally responsible in a robust sense. I’m less convinced here. BTW the classic book on semi-compatiblism is The Metaphysics of Free Will by Fischer. He has quite a few books on the topic though. (I’ve not read his latest yet)

  15. Clark, perhaps you could put such a thing in the form of a proof something like Blake uses. Maybe then, someone like me, (not real sharp) could understand it.

    Keep in mind, it needs to be something in line with our current understanding of the scriptures.

  16. Clark: I believe that you conflate two closely related but distinct ideas — moral responsibility and free will. Free will is valuable for a lot of reasons, including the kind of freely chosen relationships that we value in addition to being a condition for our being justly held morally responsible. It is also valuable to the kind of reasoning processes in which we engage where our reasons are the result of rational thought instead of causal laws and past factors over which we have no control.

    Further, like CEF I would like to see your argument that semi-compatibilism allows for even the more limited moral responsibility you suggest may be compatible with foreknowledge. There are few takers on Fischer’s type of semi-responsibility because it collapses into simple soft-determinism. There are a lot of folks who want to limit considerations of responsibility to our mere practices of blaming and holding accountable (e.g., Strawson) — but that also seems both doomed in terms of our actual practices as applied philosophy suggests but also allows only factual description of what we do, not what we should do. Ought does not equal is. If I hold you accountable when I ought not do so, that doesn’t support the view that you are morally accountable. That is the non-sequitur at the bottom of that view (and the problem with the Wittgensteinian approach to ethics as well).

  17. Adam: If God doesn’t know a totality of experiences or what is actual, as process thought suggests, then how could God have sufficient knowledge to be considered all-knowing — or even know what we are doing?

  18. Blake – what do you think about the role of the Spirit in this case? Could he know through the power of the Spirit? It might kick the can down the road slightly, but if you think of the Spirit as being the one that links us all together with God then God can know all things by the power of the spirit. (it’s role after all is a revelator or testator)

  19. Chris – I believe that it is through God’s spirit that he knows such things but spirit in the sense described in D&C 88 that is the light of God that is in and through all things. I assumed by Spirit you meant a personal being like the Holy Ghost but I probably misread you.

  20. I agree with Elder Maxwell (http://emp.byui.edu/SATTERFIELDB/Quotes/OMNISIC.htm) and ji #9, and tend to take the Lord at His word when He says:

    1 Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I Am, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made;

    2 The same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes. (D&C 38:1-2)

    In conjunction with that thought, I also like what Nephi had to say about God’s infinite love for His children: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”

    Chris’ Princess Bride point (#7) is well taken. Truly Ostler must have a dizzying intellect, but I have spent the last few years building up an immunity to false doctrines. That said, I enjoy an occasional flirt with theological speculation just as much as the next person.

  21. I feel a lot like ji, i.e. a lot of this seems too hard for me.

    I certainly lean heavily toward Blake’s thinking on God’s foreknowledge. Furthermore, it seems to me that I remember that Blake had discussions with Elder Maxwell that supercede those articles you link to, Lucy. Doesn’t Blake indicate somewhere Elder Maxwell acknowledged some humility on the subject or something? Isn’t there a DIALOGUE article or something? Not only is this too hard for me, but I’m getting old.

    You seem, Lucy, from what you say, to flirt occasionally not only with theological speculation but also with fantasy. Or so it seems to me, no disrespect intended. Especialy, when you say that you’ve spent the last few years “building up an immunity to false doctrines” in the context of this discussion of Blake’s book. Could you please give some insight as to just how you think you come by such an immunity? Let me just say that I’m skeptical of it.

    I certainly hope always to embrace Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s humility when I’m wrong. I hope, Lucy, you do too.

    I, also, would welcome seeing others articulate their opposing positions to Blake’s more lucidly.

  22. God has a panoramic view of all outcomes across time and space.

    He sees the universe where I gave President Hinckley an atomic wedgie and the one (which I now inhabit) where I did not. I only experience the one universe, which is the intent.

  23. I […] tend to take the Lord at His word

    Sure, we all do, the crucial question, however, is what “all things” means.

  24. wreddyornot: You are correct that I had a conversation with Elder Maxwell in which he authorized me to represent that he did not desire to adopt a view that God is timeless and sees all things past, present and future in any sense like Boethius (whom he had quoted without realizing the theological baggage that view carried). I footnote our conversation and his authorization in my article “The Mormon Concept of God” which you can access by clicking my name. However, my sense is that he remained in the question about the extent of God’s foreknowledge and its relation to free will. He was indeed a humble man and remarkably open.

    Lucy: I think that Peter LLC is right. We all take very seriously the scriptures and accept them. However, there are several scriptural passages which require that God does not know the future. There are others that can be read in good faith to indicate that he does know the future. In later chapters that Adam and Joe will discuss I address these issues. I believe that the scriptures are not inconsistent with the view that God does not have foreknowledge of free human action. Take for instance D&C 38:1-2 which you cite. All that is required by this scripture is present knowledge — that is, all that exists right now is “before God’s eyes” because the things that God sees includes only what exists now.

  25. Sometimes I think we are eager to make agency the overarching and supreme doctrine without taking into account the price that was paid for that agency to be exercised. I also think we are eager to worship a God that we form in our own image, rather than worshipping a God who invites us to conform to His image. I am grateful for your (#22) humble exhortations to humility, and realize that it is difficult to convey humor via blogs (playing with the Princess Bride moment). Of course, as soon as we think we are humble, we can be assured that we are not. For me, knowledge of God’s love, that peace which passeth understanding, supercedes knowledge of God’s perfect knowledge, although both are necessary and good. I probably have some more Adam, Blake, Boethius, Nibley, Ostler, Dialogue, standard works, and Maxwell to study in order to understand this conversation, but I am only pressing the issue because I was not completely satisfied by any of the responses. Like ji (9#), I see no conflict between God’s foreknowledge and our agency. Peter (#24) helps us to hone in on a good question, what does “all things” mean? So, what does “all things” mean? When God says that He knows “all things”, why do mortals need to qualify that declaration? Or more precisely, in what way does God’s knowledge of all things compromise moral agency? God knows I am writing this, and He knows what your response will be, but you are still free to respond how you choose. I will read your (#25) article on the Mormon concept of God, but if anyone has a briefer, more lucid response, I will know whether or not I need to read Ostler. Thanks. Respectfully, Lucy

  26. I believe that you conflate two closely related but distinct ideas — moral responsibility and free will.

    I thought by bringing up semi-compatibilism I was most explicitly not conflating them since the whole point of semi-compatibilism is that responsibility doesn’t need libertarian free will. (grin)

    There are few takers on Fischer’s type of semi-responsibility because it collapses into simple soft-determinism.

    Really? My experience was that it was a pretty popular position. I don’t think it collapses into soft-determinism since its whole point is that whether or not determinism (of any stripe) is true you can still talk about responsibility. That is the whole point of semi-compatibilism is the claim that responsibility and determinism are compatible without necessarily taking a position on whether there is determinism or not.

  27. Clark: Right. Semi-compatibilism attempts to take a position that allows for responsibility but can be compatible with determinism — which just is soft-determinism. It provides a view of responsibility that is inadequate and has been widely criticized in the literature. As far as I know, only Fischer and Ravizza adopt it — and they are the two that formulated it. I critique it in my book and show why I believe it fails. It doesn’t avoid the force of the Consequence argument. It takes Frankurt counter-examples as a starting point but fails to convince that open alternatives are not necessary to responsibility. As you know, I don’t think that so-called Frankfurt counter-examples really are counter-examples to libertarian free will. But I’m sure that you were aware of that. Do you adopt some sort of semi-compatibilism?

  28. Heard a joke the other day, thought you all might enjoy it. (hopefully I don’t butcher it too bad)

    A guy goes to sleep and dreams he has a debate with Plato and he proves everything that Plato says as wrong. He then wakes up and remembers the dream but he can’t remember what he said during the debate. Next night, he dreams he is having a debate with Descartes and he completes annihilates all Descartes’ ideas. He’s on fire. Then he wakes up, but he still can’t remember anything he said. So he’s determined to wake himself up if it happens again and write it down this time. As luck would have it on the third night he’s dreaming again and David Hume comes to him and they have a big debate, and he’s rebutting everything that Hume throws at him. Miraculously he wakes up right then and scribbles everything down he can remember he said. Next morning, when he’s fully awake he opens up his notebook and reads what he has written: “That’s just your opinion.” :)

  29. Well it’s been a few years since I engaged with it Blake (28). So I’ve not kept up with things since Garden of Forking Paths died. (I’ve been ridiculously busy the past few years) As I remember then it was quite popular and I don’t think it was done in as you seem to think. (I remember quite a few people at GFP embracing semi-compatibilism)

    I do recall you comments about Frankfurt examples and LFW.

    As for what I embrace, as I recall I was a pretty sympathetic to semi-compatibilism. Whether I still would be I don’t know. It’s been a while. I tend to find the argument that we must be responsible in a particular sense to be unconvincing though. As for whether we have LFW or not I simply don’t know. I confess to being pretty skeptical of it simply because of the ontological place of an agent. I tend to think it something we want simply because of the way our language and brains tend to discern agent-hood. i.e. we move from certain instincts to ontology which I’m pretty distrustful of.

    I also am more sympathetic to descriptions of foreknowledge than you are and don’t find attempts to explain them away persuasive. But whether there is such foreknowledge seems more a matter of discerning the universe. It only takes one case of foreknowledge implausibly established by control or prediction to make the case.

  30. BTW – regarding the Consequence Argument. I always saw it more oriented around incompatiblism but not semi-compatibilism. (As to its effect, the comments to this post at GFP is worth reading. (For other people interested in the topic I mean – both Blake and I were frequent readers of GFP then) The comments are worth reading if only to suggest there are still more compatibilists than incompatibilists. (Of course most of the compatibilists don’t care for semi-compatibilism any more than the libertarians do)

    I should also add that my ultimate position, beyond a certain degree of skepticism, is the idea that not even God could know if we had libertarian free will. Your position was that God must have enough knowledge to know this. It just isn’t at all clear to me how he could come to that knowledge. (Sorry – it’s been too long since I thought about this last to be able to reargue all this. I’m just posting the link for those interested in the topic.)

  31. Who can write an article called “The Mormon Concept of God”? I’m a Mormon with a well-defined concept of God, but I am rather sure it differs from the concepts held by other Mormons as evidenced here. I am so very glad we don’t have an all-encompassing Mormon theology prepared by the academics among us, but rather every man is entitled to speak in the name of God. How wonderful it is!

  32. ji and Lucy, I hope you’ll both read Blake’s article and, if you haven’t yet, also read the book that is being reviewed and discussed in this and other previous and subsequent postings. I think they’ll address a lot of what you’re asking and struggling with. I’m not certain you’ll agree with everything or anything, just as other posters here don’t seem to agree with Blake’s position, but you’ll be better informed. I think you’ll admit that there is a tension at least for us humans from our vantage point — at least for some of us — between the concepts of agency and foreknowledge.

    Couldn’t “all things” for Peter simply mean that God knows everything that’s happened — certain things haven’t happened yet, even in science there is an arrow of time — and that God has as good a chance as is possible of knowing what will happen because of various factors we know and attribute to God: e.g. his knowing everything that’s happened, his eternal experience, his place (vantage point) in existence, his skill, based on everything I’ve mentioned, to predict, and his plan, etc.?

    I’m glad Clark posted a couple of links I can go peruse too. What I wish is that these capable philosophers would do a better job of communicating with non-philosophers. However, the philosophers are probably saying buck up and do the work I did to get here.

  33. Lucy: “all things” means things that have existed and that exist now; it does not include things that do not yet exist and my never exist because they are contingent and depend for their realization on the future acts of free agents that may or may not choose to bring about certain things.

    The basis for showing that free will and foreknowledge are not compatible looks like this:

    (B1) It has always been true that Rock will sin tomorrow and it is possible to know this truth now (assumption omnitemporality of truth);
    (B2) It is impossible that God should at any time believe what is false or fail to believe any truth (assumption infallible mniscience);
    (B3) God has always believed that Rock will sin tomorrow (from B1 and B2);
    (B4) If God has always believed a certain thing, then it is not in anyone’s power to do anything which entails that God has not always believed that thing (assumption past necessity);
    (B5) It is not in Rock’s power to act in a way that entails that God has not always believed that Rock will sin tomorrow (from B3 and B4);
    (B6) That Rock refrains from sinning tomorrow entails that God has not always believed that Rock will sin tomorrow (from B2—semantically necessary truth);
    (B7) Therefore, it is not in Rock’s power to refrain from sinning tomorrow (from B5 and B6);
    (B8) If Rock acts freely when he sins tomorrow, then he also has it within his power to refrain from sinning tomorrow (assumption libertarian free will);
    (B9) Therefore, Rock does not act freely when he sins tomorrow (from B7 and B8).

    Because the argument is logically valid, one must choose which premises to reject if one rejects the conclusion PDQ.

  34. “‘[A]ll things’ means things that have existed and that exist now; it does not include things that do not yet exist and my never exist because they are contingent and depend for their realization on the future acts of free agents that may or may not choose to bring about certain things.” D&C 130:7 says all things, past, present, and future.

    “Because the argument is logically valid, one must choose which premises to reject if one rejects the conclusion PDQ.” Must?


    One simply does not get involved in the argument if he or she believes the things of God are not controlled by man’s logic. Our ways and our understandings are not Gods ways and understandings. I cannot allow man-made philosophy and logic to control my faith and belief; rather, my belief comes from the principle described in D&C 1:19-20.

    Philosophy and logic are fun and can contribute to great learning, but they aren’t controlling in matters of God, in my mind. Others will differ.

  35. Thanks for your responses. What I find remarkable is that even from before the foundation of the world, Heavenly Father knew and now knows the exact intricate pattern of every fingerprint on every finger that made every keystroke that each one of us would use in typing on this blog post, and that in His infinite mercy He allows us to do so.

    “[T]he things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity-thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! None but fools will trifle with the souls of men. (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Vols. 3:295)” – Joseph Smith from Liberty Jail

  36. Ji – The sentence “X created a perfectly round square” doesn’t suddenly make sense simply because God is substituted for X. Religious faith does not excuse us from sound reasoning or give us leave to assert solemn sounding nonsense.

    BTW what D&C 130:7 really says is that it is all things for the glory of the angels that is manifest past, present and future.

    Lucy: Interesting how easy you make up non-scriptural assertions and assert them as if they were scripture. Show me anything about fingerprints, keystrokes or blogs in scripture.

  37. Ji, I am amused and baffled by your response. You are taking a high minded approach to reject rationality. How can you have a conversation with someone who refuses to define terms? If I say “God is good, love is good, therefore, God is love” will you argue that I am attempting to control God by defining him? I understand that without some training much of the communication here is above my head, but I accept that it is because I am not a clear or careful thinker and/or that I lack vocabulary, not that it is because it so much silliness and I am above it all. Your experiences with God are valuable and useful, but if you can’t articulate them will you resort to the common Christian response that it is all just a mystery rather than accept that you are embracing irrationality?

    I assert that you are employing philosophy whenever you think carefully about something because you are using language to think in a rational way. Would you say that thinking is what you do (and what the prophets did and still do), while philosophizing is what those who disagree with you do?

  38. Adam “Orson Pratt” Miller,

    I like very much what you’re doing here in terms of the figure/ground problem. Let’s ditch the field as currently defined: consistent being as the ground of inconsistent figures.

    But I’m a bit nervous about what you call the alternative. One option is to drop the ground entirely so as just to play with the possibility of there being just inconsistent (or perhaps consistent?) figures (“agents all the way down”). But another is to recognize the ontological ground to be inconsistent and the figures to be remarkably consistent. Why should the former be preferred?

    Another way to put all this: Isn’t your alternative to drop the category of the transcendental entirely? Can Mormonism make any real sense without some sort of transcendental?

  39. Clark: I think a lot of folks initially took the Consequence Argument (that is the argument that we don’t have power to change the past and the laws of nature which determine our actions if determinism is true) to apply to only Libertarian views. Fischer did. But it also shows that we are not the source of our actions — our actions are the result of causes outside of our control. Semi-compatibilism (the notion that we can be free so long as the causes are transmitted through our reasoning processes) requires that our reasons be our own. But if determinism is true, our “reasons” are also the result of causes outside our control that are not based on rational considerations. It thus also entails the source control problem which semi-compatibilism fails.

  40. Blake (no. 38) — It is not necessary for one’s religious faith to be based on rationality or logic, or what you call “sound reasoning”. I don’t think we can reduce God to our concept of “sound reasoning”. For me, I must reject any rationality that reduces God to something less than the scriptures and Holy Spirit teach me. For me, and perhaps for other Latter-day Saints as well, faith (and things learned by faith) are more important than sound reasoning (and things learned by sound reasoning). Even so, I believe there is a place for reasoning. Our God said, Come, let us reason together. I very much enjoy reasoning with God.

    Kent (no. 39) — Rejecting an academic definition of rationality is not “embracing irrationality.” But if it will make you happy, I already acknowledged being a layman, and a simple-minded layman at that.

  41. Ji: We are all addressing an issue of faith here and it seems to me that there is an abundance of good will and mutual respect. I am glad when I encounter people like you who express and have faith. That is quite sufficient for me and I like you and can see that you are exceedingly intelligent. So I don’t want to suggest that somehow your faith is deficient because it doesn’t align with what I believe on these fairly technical issues. Those of us who do philosophy and theology must be exceedingly careful to avoid arrogance and expressing less than love and give our views as a matter of charity for consideration and not by way of pounding it down someone’s throat out of as sense of intellectual superiority.

    I suggest that it is quite prudent and rational to acknowledge the limits of our ability to know and to reason soundly. I agree that we should not “reduce” God to our ability to understand fully what God is or does and also agree that faith in God is not based on logic. Mine is not. But that does not entail that what we can escape the fact that what we believe is also formed by reason and language. How do we even know what the words of scripture mean and how they relate or what they express without reasoning? When we say that we believe that God is good, or powerful or loving, we assert that there is a being that exists and that this being has certain qualities like being good or loving. But we must have some idea of what it is to be good and to be loving to even make a meaningful assertion. Now if what we encounter is not good or loving as we understand it, we have a problem. We must explain how what we mean by good and loving is consistent with what we experience.

    It is the same with foreknowledge and free will. We have a pretty good idea of the implications of foreknowledge and that particular view of foreknowledge entail that there is a single possible future world if God knows everything that will occur before it occurs. The notion of free will is a lot harder to unpack, but there has been a lot of work in philosophy on just what it means based on our experience and various logical considerations — and also based on scripture in various faith communities. I argue that many notions of free will are inadequate or illusory and the several views that I find could be adequate are not consistent with foreknowledge in the usual sense of that term. If you disagree, then it seems that you must engage my views of foreknowledge and explain where I go wrong or why the view of free will that I suggest is somehow not quite right (that is what Clark is doing). It does no good to say that you have faith and that solves the problem.

  42. ji,

    The opposite of faith is not reason, but nihilism. The opposite of reason is irrationality. I recognize that many of us (including myself) hold to mutually contradictory beliefs until we feel capable of examining them in a way that is non-threatening.

  43. Blake (no. 43) — I appreciate your candor.

    You write, “If you disagree, then it seems that you MUST engage my views for foreknowledge and explain where I go wrong . . .” (my emphasis).

    No, I don’t have to engage. I can simply say, as I did in my no. 9,

    “I’m satisfied with the simple understanding that
    (i) God sees all things, past, present, and future,
    and all things are under his control; (ii) God keeps
    his promises; (iii) our ways and understandings are
    not his ways and understandings; and (iv) I am free
    to act or to be acted upon, to choose life or death.

    “I see no conflict between God’s foreknowledge and
    my agency.”

    I don’t acknowledge that there is a problem to be solved. This is a valid perspective.

    I don’t want to stop academic and philosophical consideration of doctrinal matters; I only want to maintain and share with other readers that there is another perspective, especially in matters of faith. Building faith is more important than winning arguments. A reader of this blog might see the academic discussion here and have his or her faith strengthened by the rigor and the inquiry in your and Adam’s postings; another reader my have his or her faith strengthened by my simpler words.

    So my postings weren’t to say that anyone else is wrong, but just to share my simpler perspective.

    Any push-back from me comes when someone says that I “MUST” adopt a certain definition or approach or conclusion. Paul said, Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.

  44. Ok, here is where I have trouble with “The Mormon Concept of God” as expounded by Ostler:

    “Historically, most Latter-day Saints have taken the first general position: everything is foreseen and freedom remains. Some have taken the second, that God’s foreknowledge is not absolute. The third alternative, that human freedom is illusory, is incompatible with LDS belief in genuine free agency and responsibility.10” (Faulconer)

    “Thus it remains an open question in Mormonism whether foreknowledge and free agency are compatible.11 I have argued that they are not compatible. The Mormon view that God is involved in “eternal progression” and that a genuine risk is associated with salvation due to free will (in opposition to Satan’s plan, which would have removed all risks) is more consistent with the open view of God. The strong commitment to free agency in Mormon thought is of course basic because it is grounded in Lehi’s statement in the Book of Mormon that “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). But views about the incompatibility of such free agency and God’s foreknowledge should not be labeled “the Mormon view.”” (Ostler)

  45. First of all, isn’t there at least a fourth option to Faulconer’s formulation, that everything is not just “foreseen” but simply “seen”? Unlike mortals in mortality, God is not bound by time and all things are present before Him. Secondly, if I have understood correctly, there is a so-called “Mormon view” that God is involved in “eternal progression” that is consistent with an “open view” of God. What does this mean? Is this the the Ostlerian view? What does it mean that God is involved in “eternal progression”? Third, was it Satan’s plan simply to remove all risks, or was it to emphasize the assertion of one’s own agency selfishly (“my way” Moses 4:1), over the the submissive use of agency to choose the Father’s way (the Atonement)? I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that God’s will is to enable and increase human agency through the Atonement of Christ, whereas it is Satan’s will to compromise or block agency by whatever means possible, even by emphasizing agency over the Atonement.

  46. Lucy, let me ask you a question about what you mean when you say that God is not bound by time. What does that mean? Is he a time traveler, or does one thing actually not happen after another for him. Does he come in and out of time?

    Another way of asking it: Does God know what will happen next because there is only one possible future and he has already seen it? If so, then does God have agency? Can he act in another way than he has already seen himself acting?

    Ji, I am your brother regardless of disagreements. I just don’t know how to communicate with you. In person I’m sure we could come to better understand one another.

  47. #51 Just as God is not bound by time, He is not bound by my expectations or any other person’s expectations of Him. God gave us both time and agency as gifts, and we are free to do with these gifts as we choose. Our reward will be according to our choosing. God knows what will happen next because next is a mortal measurement in time, and God knows all things. I was simply positing a fourth possibility that God sees all things as present, an eternal now. I don’t know how He knows all things, but I believe that He does. I do not see as God sees, in an eternal now. His ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts higher than our thoughts.

    Does God have agency? Yes. Can he act in another way than he has already seen himself acting? God can do anything He wants. It seems absurd to me that someone who believes that God knows all things is having to defend a position against those who believe that He does not. God knows all things. It’s that simple. I am asking you to defend the idea that He does not, because so far, I have not read a clear and convincing argument in support of that theory. Nor have I heard a convincing argument that God is somehow involved in a sort of “eternal progression”. Who came up with the idea that God’s foreknowledge is not absolute? Why would that be a good thing? I want Times & Seasons to live up to it’s subtitle: Truth will prevail. So could someone please answer my question: Why does God not know all things? Thanks.

  48. I think one thing to keep in mind in all this is that analytic philosophy depends upon concept analysis. The debate between free will and foreknowledge or determinism (or randomness) is thus ultimately a debate about intuitions and “definitions” for those terms. While it would be incorrect to call it merely a semantic argument there is a strong element of semantics in the debate.

    The danger in moving that debate into the religious arena is that the language and intuition of philosophers in largely secular middle class western colleges doesn’t necessarily mean their semantics are correct. If it turned out that God’s idea of freedom or responsibility was slightly different from ours would we say the scriptures were incorrect simply because they used those words which we interpret in light of that early 21st century academic view of the semantics of the word? I don’t think so.

    One useful activity in all this is to ask how bothered one would be if there were semantic drift to the terms. (i.e. they meant something similar but not identical to what is found in the debate) To add to this one should also note philosophers themselves don’t agree on the semantics of the terms. Which is why there are still so many compatibilists among philosophers (and at one time by far the dominant position were compatibilists)

    Blake, I’m familiar with that take on the Consequence argument. And I recognize not everyone agrees guidance control is sufficient. However I think you overestimate the place the Consequence argument holds. Certainly there are lots of people who agree with it relative to compatibilism. There then are an increasing number of incompatibilists who just think we aren’t free the way many philosophers have wanted us to be free. I just don’t think the Consequence argument is quite the knock down punch you do. (Which is one reason I posted that link to GFPs)

  49. Lucy,

    Just to be very clear, I believe that God does know everything. What I don’t believe is that the future exists already for God. I actually don’t believe the future even exists, just the present exists and the past existed. God’s power in prophecy comes because he chooses to bring about his purposes, not because he just sees it happening that way and must be bound by what the future must hold. As I see it, you are the one saying God is bound by time.

    The concept of the “Eternal Now” is not one which is grounded in the scriptures. You cannot find what you are asserting in the scriptures. I believe it is the product of the philosophies of men mingled with scriptures. Paul Tillich (not a member of the church) wrote a book by that name in 1963 and that phrase has rather caught on in our church since then.

    What you are asserting is actually nonsensical when you state that God can do anything he wants without qualifying that statement. Can he create a round square just because he wants to? Joseph Smith stated that God cannot create or destroy matter, just organize it, so in one sense he is limited by what is possible. As I understand your perception, there actually is only one future and God knows it by viewing it. This is not scriptural. You can read any statement of a prophet prophesying as happening because God brings about that future event rather than because he “sees” it somehow. My question to you is for you to explain how God interacts with time and sees it, since that question is not answered in the scriptures and you seem to find great value in it. The burden is on you to explain how God is outside of time since that is a concept not found in the scriptures.

    In my perception, if there is only one possible future then there is only one possible way God can see himself interacting with us in that future. He must only do what he sees himself doing. If he were to choose another path, that other path would be what he actually foresaw himself doing. So either there are many options or there is only one possible option for the future. Pick one is all I ask. They are mutually exclusive unless you can explain how they aren’t, as many compatibilists have tried to do.

  50. I actually haven’t found anyone but Elder Maxwell using the phrase “eternal now.” I wonder if he got it from Tillich, either directly or indirectly. Do you know Blake since you had a fair number of conversations with him on the topic.

  51. #54 Then I see that we agree. The important thing is to know and understand that God loves us, which He does. I do not know the meaning of all things, but I know that God loveth his children.

    We are probably talking past each other, but I just got the impression from this post that a lot of people believe that God doesn’t know all things. Of course, God’s omniscience, omnipotence and every other perfected attribute of Godliness are only ancillary to His perfect love.

    The phrase “eternal now” was one that may have arisen in my mind from the following talk:

    “This failure to believe in a revealing God was especially basic. Some moderns who wish to distance themselves from God try placing His pavilion firmly in the past. By believing in such a disabled God, people can do pretty much as they please. It is then not many steps further to saying there is no God, therefore no law and no sin! (see 2 Ne. 2:13; see also Alma 30:28).

    Like Laman and Lemuel, many today would consign God only to the past; He thereby ceases to be the constant God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow (see 2 Ne. 27:23). Actually, God has the past, present, and future ever before Him, constituting an “eternal ‘now’” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 220; see also D&C 130:7).” Elder Maxwell “Lessons from Laman and Lemuel”

  52. As I was preparing for the Elder’s Quorum lesson this Sunday on Immorality of the Soul I came across this post that helped me explain to the class that difference between the “limited God” that Joseph Smith defined and the more generally accepted views of God. I think it also illustrates where Lucy is coming from in her definition of God being bounded by time.

    “Most of what we believe about God originated from St. Anselm and other Christian philosophers, who defined God as “that than which no greater can be conceived.” From this basic definition came the entire notion that God must be this untouchable “Almighty God” that sits on the top of a topless throne and is so large he fills the universe but so small he can dwell in your heart, etc. To some extent, all of the creeds and the way modern Christianity in general views God stemmed from this basic philosophical creation of God, not from the scriptures themselves.

    That said, it is actually this view of God (the view that He must be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, etc.) that causes so many of the philosophical quandries that tend to lead many people away from belief in God. For example, how can a god who is all good, all powerful, all knowing, and created everything from scratch (ex nihilo) allow evil to exist? Or, put another way, why would He create anything that had the potential of even remotely becoming evil?” There’s no real good answer for this when you view God the way most of the western world views him. It’s only when you start to limit God in various ways that this (and other) problems are ovecome.

    When all is said and done, there’s no real evidence that Joseph Smith created his definition of a “limited God” in order to overcome these philosophical quandries. But, wherever he got his definition, the end result is that his view of God as not necessarily being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal etc. addresses the problem of evil and other philosophical issues rather nicely. In the LDS view, God did not create anything from “nothing.” He just manages what already existed to the best of His ability. Nor is he able to do “anything.” Nor can he be in more than one place at one time. The list goes on and it really works fairly well.”

  53. Clark: Elder Maxwell told me he got the phrase “eternal now” from reading Boethius and connected it with the Time & Seasons article cited in #56 which was likely written by W.W. Phelps. However, even on the A theory of time all that really exists eternally is the present temporal moment “now.” Passing from one now to another now just changes the events and substances that occupy that moment, but both remain “now”.

  54. Adam, I don’t see how that follows. Assume you have monads that interact then any homogeneity in an area arises out of homogeneity in interactions but there’s no reason to assume each monad interacts with each other monad the same way. We assume homogeneity because we tend to see something akin to homogeneity in physics to a degree.

    If the monad is entirely free to decide how the interaction goes, then the existence of the other monad is superfluous and there is no interaction. If not, the limiting factors are background rules or a ‘field.’

    Similarly, there are the rules or conditions that permit the existence of monads/that makes their existence intelligible. If nothing else, under your hypothetical there is a homogenous field of ‘existence,’ ‘choice,’ and ‘monads.’

  55. I just got the impression from this post that a lot of people believe that God doesn’t know all things.

    My impression is that a lot of people do not share a definition of what it means for God to know all things, which, as an entirely different kettle of fish, seems like a more productive basis for grappling with these issues.

  56. Carey,


    “If all time is eternally present, then all time is irredeemable … or is to redeemable?, I can never remember” – Robyn Hitchcok on T.S. Eliot

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