Mormonism and agency/Free will

Table of Contents

Free will

Summary: Science demonstrates that all interactions of matter--including all events in the human brain--are sufficiently caused by previous events. If we know enough about the laws that govern these interactions and the current state of the universe, we would be able to exactly predict any future event. Does this mean that the doctrine of "agency" or "free will" is false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

Jump to Subtopic:


Question: Does Jesus already know who will be returning to God's presence?

In the lack of a revealed answer to the question, both positions appear to be acceptable alternatives for faithful, believing Latter-day Saints

In Sunday School today somebody said that Jesus Christ knew from the pre-existence who would return to Heavenly Father's presence. Some class members disagreed with that opinion and we couldn't reach a final answer, and we were unable to find a scripture to confirm that comment. The person said that "Jesus knows everything, from the beginning to the end, and therefore he knows who will be returning to God's presence." Could you help me with this issue?


This is a doctrinal or theological topic about which there is no official Church doctrine of which FairMormon is aware. Leaders and members may have expressed a variety of opinions or positions. Like all material in FairMormon Answers, it reflects the best efforts of FairMormon volunteers, not an official Church position.

Absolute foreknowledge is the more common view held by members of the Church. Most who hold this view don't consider the theological problems it raises, but those who do claim that both absolute foreknowledge and omniscience are fully compatible with both human agency and genuine petitionary prayer. A minority of Church members reject that view and believe that God knows all that is possible to know, but does not have a perfect knowledge of future events, since having such knowledge is not logically possible. In this view, God knows everything that it is possible to know, but agency leaves areas in which the outcome is not certain. Those who hold this view must conclude that God may occasionally be surprised at the way some things turn out, a conclusion which raises theological problems of its own.

In the lack of a revealed answer to the question, both positions appear to be acceptable alternatives for faithful, believing Latter-day Saints.

The question raised by this question is one that is hotly debated both among Mormons and Christians in general

There is no definitive answer in the scriptures, and both sides marshal evidence to support their views.

James Faulconer summed up the situation:

Modern scripture speaks unequivocally of the foreknowledge of God: "All things are present before mine eyes" (DC 38:2). It affirms that God has a fulness of truth, a "knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come" (DC 93:24, emphasis added).

∗       ∗       ∗
In an attempt to reconcile divine foreknowledge and human freedom, major Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers have offered three alternatives.

[1] In the first, both horns of the dilemma are affirmed: "Everything is foreseen, and freedom of choice is given." This is the position of Rabbi Akiba and Maimonides (Aboth 3, 19; Yad, Teshuvah 5:5), as well as of Augustine and Anselm (City of God 5.9–10; The Harmony of the Foreknowledge, the Predestination, and the Grace of God with Free Choice 1.3). Maimonides argues that though it is logically impossible for human foreknowledge of one's actions to be compatible with freedom, God's foreknowledge, which is of a different and mysterious kind, is compatible with freedom.

[2] In the second, God's foreknowledge is limited. Since people are free, God knows the possibilities and probabilities of human choice, but not the inevitabilities. God is omniscient in knowing all that can be known; but not in knowing beforehand exactly how people will use their freedom, since that cannot be known because future, contingent events do not exist. This is the view of the Talmudist Gersonides (Levi Ben Gershon, 1288-1344; Milhamot Adonai, III, 6) and, with some modifications, of Charles Hartshorne and process philosophers.

[3] In the third, humans are not genuinely free. Freedom is an illusion that arises from human ignorance of divine cause and necessity. All that individuals do is actually determined and predetermined. God both pre-knows and pre-causes all that occurs. This is the view of Spinoza and Calvin.

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 agency and responsibility. Praise and blame, accountability and judgment, are meaningless unless humans are free. Any doctrine of foreknowledge that undercuts this principle violates the spirit and letter of LDS scripture.[1]

The dilemma is also discussed, from a more scientific point of view, in the FAIRwiki article on "Free Will".

A Faulconer states, most Latter-day Saints hold to unlimited foreknowledge

A Faulconer states, most Latter-day Saints hold to unlimited foreknowledge. This has been the traditional view of most Christians since the post-New Testament period, and it is one doctrine that Joseph Smith didn't seem to question, as there are no revelations that address it. Indeed, it appears that most LDS leaders and scholars simply haven't questioned its veracity.

A few LDS leaders have taken a stance against any limitations in God's knowledge. Probably the strongest statement has been from Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who listed limited foreknowledge as the first of "seven deadly heresies":

There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.

This is false—utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it. It grows out of a wholly twisted and incorrect view of the King Follett Sermon and of what is meant by eternal progression.

God progresses in the sense that his kingdoms increase and his dominions multiply—not in the sense that he learns new truths and discovers new laws. God is not a student. He is not a laboratory technician. He is not postulating new theories on the basis of past experiences. He has indeed graduated to that state of exaltation that consists of knowing all things and having all power.

∗       ∗       ∗

Eternal progression consists of living the kind of life God lives and of increasing in kingdoms and dominions everlastingly. Why anyone should suppose that an infinite and eternal being who has presided in our universe for almost 2,555,000,000 years, who made the sidereal heavens, whose creations are more numerous than the particles of the earth, and who is aware of the fall of every sparrow--why anyone would suppose that such a being has more to learn and new truths to discover in the laboratories of eternity is totally beyond my comprehension.[2]

Other Latter-day Saints have pointed out that absolute foreknowledge raises particular problems with the concept of agency and the efficacy of petitionary prayer

Other Latter-day Saints have pointed out that absolute foreknowledge raises particular problems with the concept of agency and the efficacy of petitionary prayer. If God knew from all eternity exactly what any of us would do at any given time, then it is difficult to claim we have agency in any legitimate sense. As Blake Ostler put it:

The modern argument showing that free will is not compatible with foreknowledge is based on the fixity of the past or, in other words, the principle that no person can have power to do anything which entails that God has not always believed what God has in fact always believed. Suppose that God has always believed that I will rob a 7-Eleven at a certain time t. My refraining from robbing the 7-Eleven at time t certainly entails that God has not always believed that I will rob at t. Because God has always believed that I will rob the 7-Eleven at t, I cannot have the power to refrain from robbing, since this power would entail power to change God's past beliefs. No person has the power to alter the past. Yet to be free with respect to whether I rob, I must have power to refrain from robbing the 7-Eleven at t. It follows that either God does not have foreknowledge or I am not free.[3]

Similarly, if God has absolute foreknowledge then it is difficult to make sense of petitionary prayer. The whole idea behind petitionary prayer is that by praying we can invoke God's help in situations where he would not have given it if we had not asked—in essence, we're trying to change his mind about something ("I wasn't going to help them, but since they asked...."). If God has absolute foreknowledge from all eternity, then not even he could alter the future, for to do so would be to falsify his prior foreknowledge, and it wouldn't be true anymore. For example, you will either find your lost keys or you won't; praying about it cannot possibly change that outcome if God has absolute foreknowledge. Therefore, on this view petitionary prayer is useless because God cannot be persuaded to act differently to change the outcome.

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[4]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[5]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[6]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[7]


Question: Is the Mormon doctrine of "agency" or "free will" false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

We know from the scriptures that God can exactly predict the future, but we also know from the scriptures that we have our moral agency to decide our future

Science demonstrates that all interactions of matter--including all events in the human brain--are sufficiently caused by previous events. If we know enough about the laws that govern these interactions and the current state of the universe, we would be able to exactly predict any future event. Does this mean that the doctrine of "agency" or "free will" is false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

We know from the scriptures that God can exactly predict the future, but we also know from the scriptures that we have our moral agency to decide our future. There must be a solution to this problem, but there is as yet no generally-accepted solution.

The Spirit and the Body

Everything we think and feel is probably correlated with some physical changes in the brain. And, really, this shouldn't surprise the LDS, since they do not believe that "mind"/"spirit" and "body" are two totally separate and utterly un-similar things (See Cartesian fallacy):

There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;

We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131:7-8)

Thus, in LDS theology there is no spirit/matter dichotomy. Spirit is matter, though less easily detected by mortal eyes. If a spiritual experience or a "thought" from our spirit/mind is to have an effect upon a mortal being, it's not surprising to find detectable physical changes in the gross "non-spiritual" matter which we can study. You won't detect the actor (the 'spirit matter'), necessarily, but you might expect to see the effect of the action (on the 'body matter').

Newtonian Determinism

A question that is likely to create an argument in any LDS Sunday School class anywhere in the world is, "Does God perfectly know the future?" Half the class will insist that he does, because the scriptures are clear:

O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it. 2 Nephi 9:20

The other half will insist that this is not possible, since this would destroy the free agency of man, which is also clear:

Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. 2 Nephi 10:23

But God’s knowledge is not really the question anyway. The real question relative to free will involves the nature of physical and spiritual law — is it deterministic or indeterministic?

The Universe is said to be "deterministic" if, given the state of the Universe at one point in time, there is only one state possible at a later point in time. The Newtonian world view was deterministic. It concluded that, given the present positions, velocities, and other properties of every bit of matter, field, and (we would add) spirit, the future values for these variables are completely specified. Thus, the orbits of the planets, the weather, the rise and fall of nations, or the outcome of every love affair is already determined, based on the current state of the universe. It is hard to see how free agency can exist in such an environment.

Quantum Uncertainty

The alternative to a deterministic Universe is a Universe in which, given the state of the Universe at one point in time, more that one state is possible at a later point in time. We call such a Universe "indeterministic." Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that the fundamental laws of the Universe are quantum mechanical in nature. In quantum mechanics, the present state of the Universe may precisely determine a probability distribution, but, ultimately, the future state of the Universe will involve a random selection from among the allowed possibilities. The future is always partially uncertain. This is the majority view of the interpretation of quantum theory, but it is not the only view. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states,

The scientific evidence for quantum mechanics is sometimes said to show that determinism is false. Quantum theory is indeed very well confirmed. However, there is nothing approaching a consensus on how to interpret it, on what it shows us with respect to how things are in the world. Indeterministic as well as deterministic interpretations have been developed, but it is far from clear whether any of the existing interpretations is correct. [8]

But does quantum mechanics do anything to help the situation relative to free agency? We must remember that quantum mechanics is partly deterministic — the determination of the probabilities for each possible outcome — and partly indeterministic — the final random selection of one state out of all the possibilities. Since the ultimate selection process is random, it is no different than the process of flipping a coin. The quantum world view, with each decision slave to the outcome of a coin toss, seems less conducive to free will than does the deterministic world view.

What Is Free Agency?

The existence or non-existence of free will has deeply troubled Mormon and non-Mormon philosophers for centuries, and the problem shows no sign of resolving itself.

One Mormon philosopher, Blake Ostler,[9] has suggested that there is a third possibility between determinism and indeterminism. This is the "creative synthesis" suggested by philosopher and theologian Charles Hartshorne. In this view, the moment of decision itself creates a new entity that did not exist in the previous moment, one that is affected by the decision process and that contributes to the outcome of the decision process in a deterministic but unpredictable way. This, it is suggested, is what we call "free will."

On the other hand, a Mormon physicist, Ronald Hellings,[10] has argued that Hartshorne’s description of "creative synthesis" sounds suspiciously like a simple non-linear process, a completely deterministic thing that engineers and scientists encounter and solve all the time. In Hellings’ view, free agency should be thought of as the name for the deterministic causes that arise inside an individual’s uncreated intelligence. Determinism is required, according to Hellings, in order to allow those causes to truly make the decision and not have it stolen away at the last moment by a random flip of an electron in someone's brain.

Notes

  1. James E. Faulconer, "Foreknowledge of God," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1:521-522.
  2. Bruce R. McConkie, "The Seven Deadly Heresies," address given at Brigham Young University on 1 June 1980; BYU Speeches of the Year 1980. off-site wiki FairMormon link
  3. Blake T. Ostler, "Review of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis by Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 99–146. off-site
  4. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  5. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
  7. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
  8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line at plato.stanford.edu (revised 17 August 2004, last accessed 23 October 2006).
  9. Blake Ostler, "The Mormon Concept of God," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Summer 1983), 73.
  10. Ronald Hellings, "Determinism and Free Agency," a talk presented at Sunstone Symposium West, Los Angeles, California, 1988 (unpublished).