Saturday, November 19, 2011

Free will ain't cheap.

Let’s play a little game of logic, starting with two separate premises: that free will exists and that the future can be known.

Free will exists.

Free will requires that we make decisions that can alter the future.

Because the future can be altered, it is not fixed.

Therefore, free will requires that the future not fixed.

The future can be known.

To know exactly is different to guess or predict accurately.

Only something fixed can be known, otherwise it is only guessed or predicted.

Therefore, a knowable future requires that it be fixed.

If free will exists, the future cannot be known. If the future can be known, free will cannot exist.

Example: If I have a vision in which I see you eating eggs for breakfast tomorrow, and my vision is a perfectly accurate representation of the future, then under no circumstances can you eat anything besides eggs for breakfast. Even if I tell you you’re going to eat eggs and you try to prove me wrong, it’s irrelevant: I saw the future with perfect accuracy and you will eat eggs no matter what. You have no choice in the matter because it will happen. If a scenario somehow arises where you don’t eat eggs, then my vision wasn’t an accurate representation.

However, If I visit your home and notice that you only have eggs, butter, and a fry pan, and I know you have no money, then I can very accurately predict that you will eat eggs tomorrow. My knowledge of your circumstances means I can tell what the future will very probably be. However, you are free to try and change it - you might borrow some cereal or some toast. I may learn enough to predict that this too could happen, but regardless of my prediction your breakfast is not set in stone until it happens.

I believe in free will. I also believe in a God who is omniscient. What gives? Well, to me, to be omniscient is to know all that is knowable - therefore, he knows all the facts that exist, and based on that information and his vast experience and intelligence he can with high accuracy predict future events. He can even use those predictive powers to very accurately tell the future of groups and nations, using the same principle that we need not predict the movement of an individual water molecule precisely to know where a wave is moving. Furthermore, God has the power to make his will manifest in future
events, meaning he can influence things to happen the way he wants them to.
So I reject the idea that God or any man can or has seen the future in any certain, absolute, or fixed form, because in order for that to be possible, free will, as I have argued, cannot exist. The future does not exist until it happens - it’s just not a thing; it’s not real. To me that doesn’t diminish God in the least - in fact, a knowable future make him a liar, placing us in a world where we are told we have free will when that is actually not the case, where some of us are doomed to fail or destined to succeed (a very Calvinist belief not becoming of a good mormon).

One counter-argument is that time only exists with man and that God is somehow beyond all that, that everything is an “eternal now” with him. Perhaps I, with my very limited understanding, am putting barriers around God’s power. That might all be so, and I have to accept that I could be wrong. But any talk of an eternal now, or of God being beyond or outside time, is describing something beyond all comprehension and is necessarily a metaphor. Within that metaphor there is certainly room for my belief, that God is the perfect predictor given the near-infinite information available to him (God’s ways are not our ways, and perfect prediction definitely isn’t our way!), so I don’t have to throw out those ideas to believe the way I do.

So, what do you think? Are my premises bad, or is my logic unsound? Sound off! Also, forgive my non-use of the capitalized pronoun for the Lord. I think it looks weird :)


  1. I would just like to point out that overlooked the possibility that I might just forgo the eggs entirely, and eat a stick of butter for breakfast. It worked for Homer Simpson, so who knows?

  2. I like it. Mostly because I was planning on writing a post very similar to this one, but just never got around to it. I suppose this teaches me to blog a bit more often, eh?

    Something one of my professors has said ties in with this topic, namely, that a belief in agency cannot coexist with a belief in linear time. It makes sense, too--if time moves in a simple linear progression from cause to effect ad nauseum, then the past will have always determined the future and negated any possibility of choice in the present. Due to a misfire in the electrochemical receptors in my brain, for example, i failed to purchase breakfast food, and due to that failure, i now have only butter and eggs, which i must now eat. A leads to B, which in turn invariably leads to C; where did B come from? Why, A of course, and as a result there must be and can only be C. The past has led to the present, which will lead into the future just the same.

    But then there's the nonlinear idea of time. There is no past; there is no future. Time is an obscure construct created to measure the fact that things change. The universe is in constant flux. We can attempt to reconstruct former states of being either by examining evidences they left behind (like an archeologist) or by using human memory, but in fact there is no set past. The universe has no central processor that stores the way things are or were at any given second; you can't turn a dial back and relive a past moment. Since former states are utterly unobservable, what really matters instead is the meaning that gets attached to former states, which in turn affects future goals. If I realize that I didn't buy any groceries, I have a choice: I can assign one meaning to this situation (namely, that I'm stuck with scrambled eggs for breakfast), or I can assign another (like you said, I could go next door and borrow cereal, or I could skip breakfast today, etc.). I can change my mind about a meaning--maybe i don't want eggs for breakfast because three years ago I had stomach poisoning after eating scrambled eggs and have since decided never again to eat them, but when I think about it a little more, I remember how much I used to love scrambled eggs, and maybe if I give them another shot they'll be okay. I changed the meanings attributed to the past, and by so doing have altered the future.

    As for the whole knowing the future thing, I've been thinking about it a lot ever since Priesthood meetings started focusing on the second coming and the millennium. I wonder if it could be either of two things: either God uses possible future scenarios as a means to effect some change in the present (like Jonah warning Ninevah to repent or be destroyed, only without the surprise when they do and the destruction is avoided), or else prophets use it as a rhetorical device. Though it's entirely possible I'm just cynical.

  3. Perhaps it’s the postmodernist in me, but I'm very much in like with the notion of non-linear time. As your dinosaur put it in a previous blog-entry, 'it's all about the text!' (ie. - 'the now') But I'm getting ahead of myself, I have to build into the non-linear time thing.

    I've never liked the idea of explaining God's omniscience through predictive power, primarily because it presupposes a meaning of God that is at odds with traditional uses of the term. For most of the Christian/Jewish/Islamic world, God is an infinite being with perfect knowledge, power, and presence. God and the perfections of his qualities are synonomous. God is not God *because* he is perfect, because he has no cause, but he is also inseparable from his infinite capacity. He is also the first cause of *all* things, meaning there is nothing which exists external to his power or understanding. This, as I see it, is the way most of the world uses the term God. Of course, doctrinal plurality is a staple of modernity, so there are a number of exceptions to the above model - God is an idea, god is love, god is a man/woman, god is good living etc. But I still think that most Christians, and even most Mormons, think of God in something like the above fashion.

    So, why do I have problems with applying predictive capacity to God? Because it's ingenuous with the above description and because it supposes that the future *is* predictable. You’ve defined God’s omniscience as knowing ‘all that is knowable,’ – which is a pretty good definition – but Aquinas would shoot back at you that, to God, *nothing* is unknowable – because if something was unknowable to God then it would, in some sense, exist external to God, and God would not, therefore, be infinite. Now, I don’t exactly buy into Aquinas and Augustine – but it seems to me that if we’re going to profess a belief which implies limits the capacity of God, then we might as will cop to it and press those implications to their conclusion. If the future is unknowable to God (as in he can predict it but not know it) then God is limited. He is beholden to external forces and constraints that are beyond his capacity to overcome (ie. time and free will). If THIS is God, then we’re talking about something totally new – and the question for me becomes “why are we driven to insist that God is omniscient in the first place?” Sometimes we spend so much time trying to convince others that we’re not so theologically different from them that we forget that we are. Personally, I’m a free-willer – and as I accept the validity of Casey’s logical argument I cannot subsequently believe that God is an omniscient being.

    Secondly, claiming that God is able to know the future by virtue of his ability to predict it is to suppose that the future IS predictable – and I find this argument untenable. Is God *good* at predicting the future, or is he *perfect* at it? If he is simply good, then, by definition, he is sometimes wrong – ergo, God is not perfect (see above paragraph). Is God is *perfect* at prediction, it means that the future is entirely determined by the past – that the laws of nature and the behavior of men may be reduced to the mechanisms of their operations. Even if these mechanisms change over time they change in a predictable fashion, which means everything is still static. Why is this bad? Because pre-determination by nature is no better than pre-determination by God. In either case, free-will is an illusion. Also, the only difference I see between the classical notion of an omniscient God and the notion of a perfectly-inductive God is one of semantics. Logically speaking, free-will and perfect induction are just as contradictive as are free-will and omniscience. So, any way you cut it you have two choices: 1) God knows (or perfectly guesses) the future and we have no free-will, or 2) we have free-will and God does not know the future. I choose number 2…

  4. …but really I don’t. Why? Because the above arguments are predicated on the assumption that time is linear, and I don’t think is by any means clear. Theologically, there are a number of authorities, from multiple religions, who claim that God is external to time. Insert your favorite such quote here. Scientifically, quantum physicists tell us that the conventional understanding of time has no meaning at the sub-atomic level. Not only do quantum particles move at (or possibly above?!) the speed of light (which means half of the universe is frozen to them), but they also exist in phased states, which have multiple, equally possible mass-expressions. This means that the collapse of a quantum phase-equation at one point in time (ie. the appearance of a particle containing mass) can have repercussions for the future, the present, AND the past. Translation: it is entirely conceivable that choices we make in the present express themselves in the past, just as choices in the past express themselves present. I don’t know if this is true, but is we assume that God’s knowledge transcends terrestrial macro-atomic physics, then it is possible that God knows the future, not because the future is determined by the past, but because the present makes *itself* known to the past. Past, present, and future are one. There is nothing but the text!

    P.S. – I am bookmarking this blog, because Casey Walrath is awesome and I like the way he thinks.

    -Jeff Tucker

  5. Good points, Brett -I think I even made the mistake of talking about time too linearly. Even the past and present exist as individual and societal constructs rather than as a vast database of facts in the Central Processor of the Universe, so I'm sure God has to deal with that. Whatever his reality is, he has to deal us with ours to get to us.

    Re: prophetic warnings and all that, I think maybe the Lord has a clear idea of what he wants to happen, but is more flexible than we often think. I'm with Nibley that the second coming can't happen until Zion is ready to greet it, and that depends on us, not him. But I can't get behind the doom n' gloom, clock is counting kind of narrative (and big credit to E. Packet for gently repudiating that during conference.

  6. Jeff: welcome to our blog! Hope to read your comments more in whatever you deem the future to be ;). But you're right, of choose -the logical implications of free will may require to drop the "omni" prefix altogether. I suppose it's a strain of Neoplatonism (the great bugaboo of apologetics on the great apostasy) or at least evangelical calvinism in LDS thought that makes me want to hold to a limitless, infinite sort of God. I think of you go back to early mormonism we as a people would have seemed more comfortable with a finite God - an embodied God is by definition limited (anti-mormons hammer us over this). So, yeah.

  7. As the philosopher Phil Connors said, maybe God isn't omnipotent, he's just been around so long he knows everything ;)