Omniscience and Fate
Immutability leads to timelessness. And timelessness leads to ubiquity. If so then God is omnipotent and free from all spatial and temporal limitations. God is also omniscient. In contrast, the LDS belief in spiritual omnipresence does not entail timelessness or immutability, and it still allows us to believe God knows all things.
A typical definition of omniscience is that God knows all truths and holds no false beliefs. Traditional omniscience includes God’s certain knowledge of past, present, and future. Of knowing past, present, and future, absolute knowledge of the future is most controversial.
In this post I explore how omniscience affects beliefs about freedom, moral responsibility, and the nature of man. If one billion years ago God knows that today I have a veggie sandwich for lunch, and because God cannot be wrong, I have no choice but to realize my fate. If God knows me completely, does that mean I am a mechanism? If I am a mechanism and/or my future was determined without me, can I be held morally responsible for my actions?
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism mentions three ways of believing about the foreknowledge of God (“Foreknowledge of God,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism). (1) God knows all things past, present, and future, and yet humans are free. According to this belief God knows what will happen but doesn’t make it happen. God simply knows how each of us will freely choose; foreknowledge is simply knowledge and is distinct from causal and logical necessity. I should point out that in traditional Christianity “foreknowledge” is an anthropomorphism, a human concept used to refer to God’s knowledge of events we perceive as happening in time. However, in the Mormon conception God exists in time, so foreknowledge is truly fore-knowledge. (2) God has perfect knowledge of the past and present. He also knows every possible future along with the probability of each being actualized but does not know which will be actualized. The future is open. According to this way of believing God is omniscient because the unknowable does not qualify as knowledge: “Because the future is yet undecided—propositions about the future are neither true nor false” (Blake T. Ostler, “The Mormon Concept of God,” Dialogue, vol. 17, no. 2, 1984). In this view God has absolute knowledge he will bring about his purposes because he is the so-called unbeatable chess player. And finally (3), God has perfect knowledge of past, present, and future, and free will is an illusion.
Mormons overwhelmingly reject (3). Most believe in (1), which puts them closer to traditional Christian philosophers such as Augustine and Anselm. Many believe in (2). In addition, there is another view which uses the language of (1) and the theology of (2); it’s a kind of synthesis between omniscience, perfection, and an open future, but I’ll save that for a later post in this series.
For myself, I do reject (3), but am undecided between the others. While many Mormons believe God knows the future, they are uncomfortable with the idea it is fixed. Traditional omniscience implies a fixed future, and at the very least, that we are under God’s providential control—Few theists would accept that God knows all things and yet that history is beyond his control.
Non-traditional omniscience (2) involves an open future, and that we are under God’s providential guidance. In this view God knows the past, present, and all things that could yet happen, but not which will happen. Because the future has not yet happened, propositions about future events have no truth value. For example, in September 2008 it was not true that Barack Obama was to be inaugurated as 44th president of the United States. Back then it was possible John McCain will have won the race. The proposition, “The 2008 election results select Barack Obama to be President of the United States,” did not become true until election results made it true. The statement, “Today I will go to the public library,” is made true by my going to the public library today; before that it had no truth value. But, as with all philosophical propositions an open future has its difficulties. In particular, when exactly do propositions regarding the future acquire truth value? For example, which of the two following propositions is true: (i) admiral A wins tomorrow’s sea battle and admiral B looses; or, (ii) admiral B wins and admiral A looses. (Ignoring for now the possibility of a stalemate.) Do they acquire truth value when the battle is over? when one fleet is mortally wounded? or has retreated? Do they acquire truth value near the beginning, middle, or end of the battle? If a proposition acquires truth value at a given moment in time, it is not at all obvious how a nano-second before that moment the proposition was neither true or false, and a nano-second after it is true.
However, if God knows A wins then (i) is always true and (ii) is always false. But again, the future is fixed. On the other hand, if before the battle (i) and (ii) have no truth value then the future is genuinely open. Eventually, however, either (i) or (ii) happens. And if admiral A wins it could be argued that (i) is always true and (ii) is always false. If propositions about the future have no present truth value the future is open. If propositions about the future have fixed truth value the future is closed.
With a locked-in future one must deal with the issue of fatalism. This is the belief that no matter what you do, the future is foreordained. It cannot be other than what it is. Fatalism has a strong and weak sense. (I’m going to use these senses very loosely.) For example, if three witches tell me that tomorrow I shall fall into a pit and die, then no matter how I try to avoid it, I will stumble into a pit and die. In trying to avoid my fate I unavoidably, and accidentally, encounter it. That is weak fatalism. Strong fatalism is somewhat different. Suppose the Angel of Death decides that tomorrow I shall die. Despite my efforts to evade him, he hunts me down and frees me from my mortal coil. But suppose I am unaware of Fate’s decision? Suppose the witches don’t tell me of their prophecy? With weak fatalism I encounter my fate, whether or not I am conscientiously trying to avoid it. With strong fatalism, Fate encounters me, regardless. Maybe both, one, or none of these is true. But the kind of fatalism I am most bothered by is strong fatalism—weak fatalism involves accidents and it’s easy to believe in accidents. With weak fatalism exactly how I shall encounter my fate is unknown. With hard fatalism Fate finds me and forces his choice on me. With weak fatalism there is a sense of “What’s going to happen is going to happen. I will encounter my fate. Que sera sera.” But with hard fatalism I am not an active participant in bringing about my fate, hence there is a sense of, “Life happens to you, so why try. Fate will find me.” With weak fatalism I am participatory in bringing about my fate. With strong fatalism I am its hapless victim.
So how could the hard Mr. Fate force me to encounter his chosen plan? Suppose during Tuesday’s lecture I inform my students that Thursday’s lecture is canceled and that they needn’t come to class on Thursday. Telling my students not to come to class is normally sufficient to bring it about that they don’t come to class. But if Fate says it is true that my students do come to class on Thursday then it’s impossible for me to bring it about that they don’t come. Without the effect of my students not coming to class I can’t cause that they don’t come. I cannot cause a future event if the event doesn’t exist. If Fate decided to deny the effect then it cannot be caused. This argument can be applied broadly. Suppose every event in the universe is based on cause and effect; without effects there are no causes. Because effects are yet future and causes live in the past the necessity is in the future. Consequently, it is a form of strong fatalism. Fate determines effects; fate chooses what I can cause; there are no accidents and my actions are constrained. If God knows the history of the universe before the universe existed then our actions are determined by God’s vision of the future. Before the universe came into being its entire history was an effect, and that is the only history than can be caused.
Fate and Mechanization
As I mentioned, Mormons (like most people I suspect) tend to dislike fatalism; but they are especially allergic to strong fatalism. They also tend to believe God knows with certainty all future events. One popular workaround to strong fatalism is the idea that God knows our future choices because he knows us so well. Divine foreknowledge is then analogous to predicting the weather or a parent knowing what their child will do. If the patterns of the past are the patterns of the future then foreknowledge of a person’s choices is drawn from knowing that person. James E. Talmage (Apostle; d. 1933) wrote in his very influential book Articles of Faith (still required reading for missionaries),
God’s foreknowledge concerning the natures and capacities of His children enables Him to see the end of their earthly career even from the first…God’s knowledge of spiritual and of human nature enables Him to conclude with certainty as to the actions of any of His children under given conditions; yet that knowledge is not of compelling force upon the creature. (p. 173)
He also said,
Can we be consistent in saying that because he [a father] has thus studied his son, learned his nature, and thus knows what is approaching, that his knowledge determines that that son shall sin?… If I examine the barometer, the hygrometer…[and] I am able to say, “there will be a rain within a few hours…can you say that I cause the rain…If this be true, ignorance is not only bliss, but much to be preferred, for practical reasons. God’s foreknowledge showed Him exactly what our first parents would do under given conditions, but He did not cause them to fall; He did not cause them to disobey; He gave them their freedom and their agency to do as they chose to do. (Conference Report, October 1914, Third Day Morning Session, p.104)
Elder Talmage has a good point: If foreknowledge determines our choices then ignorance is better; at least then we would be free (from that). And if foreknowledge is derived from knowing our natures then foreknowledge does not force our choices any more than knowing that a clock ticks makes it tick. With this kind of fatalism I am an active participant in bringing about my fate. If God knows that I put on blue socks today then putting on blue socks today is not forced on me because I participate in bringing it about. His foreknowledge is an extrapolation based on what he knows about me.
However, this soft approach seems to imply a different kind of fixed future just as disturbing as hard fatalism. If predicting human behavior is like predicting the weather we are dealing with causal necessity. The implication of which is that free will is illusory. If all events can be traced back through a chain of causality—A caused B, B caused C, C caused D, etc.—then all events are determined by causal laws and antecedent conditions. If God’s knowledge of our future actions is extrapolated with certainty from physical, spiritual, and behavioral laws then our actions are merely the latest event in a chain of causal necessity. “If God can know me absolutely—as I know my children partially,” argued Marden J. Clark, “then this must mean that I am a knowable creature: absolutely knowable…To be absolutely knowable, predictable, I must be an absolute mechanism” (“Some Implications of Human Freedom,” Dialogue, vol. 5, no. 2, 1970). Mechanisms do only what they can mechanistically do, consequently they are perfectly predictable. If Dr. Talmage is correct, I mechanistically participate in bringing about my foreknown choices.
But doesn’t logic dictate some kind of stronger necessity to the foreknown future? If God foreknows my future intentions, how can they be free? If before the foundation of the world God knows that on a given day I shall intend to put on blue socks, how was I an active participant in making that true? And if God created me in toto the issue of mechanization can’t be avoided. Consider the following argument. Let E stand for putting on blue socks.
(i) I have no free will before I exist because what doesn’t exist can’t make choices or have intentions.
(ii) It is timelessly true that I intend to do E at time t.
(iii) Before I exist I do not participate in making it true that I intend to do E at time t.
(v) It was determined without my participation that I shall intend to do E at time t.
(vi) We are back to strong fatalism and/or mechanization.
I have no formal training in philosophy so I suspect the argument is simplistic. But it does have intuitive value. If my intentions are known timelessly then I am non-participant in those intentions. At least it seems that way. A typical out for the traditional theologian is that God foreknows my actions because he knows how I will freely act. God cannot know that I freely act without my acting freely. Suppose he knows, “While living I freely choose to do E at time t,” and consequently he foreknows, “I will do E at time t.” If knowing what I freely choose is somehow epistemically prior to foreknowing that choice then foreknowledge might not necessitate strong fatalism.
But this is unnecessary for Mormons. We believe that intelligence is not created. “Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:29-30); “[intelligences] have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are…eternal” (Abr. 3:18). If part of me is uncreated then, if God knows me completely, he foreknows my intentions, and I alone am the source of my intentions (Luke 16:15; Alma 18:32). God’s foreknowing I intend to put on blue socks today can be compatible with my freely choosing to put on blue socks today. There is quite a lot more that could be written about this. Is intelligence mechanistic and/or completely knowable? If intelligence is at least partly unknowable to both God and man then whether or not it is mechanistic cannot be settled, nor could the question of fate. But I’ll leave it for now.
What about moral responsibility? Suppose Mr. Dodds intends to murder his compassionate friend. If God knows Mr. Dodds intends to murder his friend, and will not be prevented from carrying out the diabolical crime, then Mr. Dodds shall murder his friend and that is that. The distressing thing is this. The day following the murder we are shocked and outraged that Mr. Dodds did such a terrible thing to a friend who was only trying to console him; his friend did not deserve this. But if the murder is foredoomed are our feelings of outrage superfluous? Can Mr. Dodds be justly punished? Perhaps. But only if he is the source of his intentions and he is not a mechanism. If he can be known completely then he is a mechanism: He killed because he is what he is. So why punish a mechanism? Can he accidentally encounter his fate as in soft fatalism? No. How could he accidentally encounter a premeditated crime? or accidentally premeditate the crime? But if the murder is determined by hard fate then something besides Mr. Dodds foredoomed the crime. So Mr Dodds is merely the unfortunate puppet. Moral responsibility is easier if some part of Mr. Dodds is unknowable, even by God. And for some Mormon thinkers this fits easily within their belief about the nature of man.
What about foreknowledge and apathy? If God knows the future we must grapple with either soft or strong fate. Both can engender pessimism. What will be cannot be otherwise. LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell warned, “The combined doctrine of God’s foreknowledge and of foreordination is one of the doctrinal roads least traveled by…Isolated from other doctrines or mishandled, though, these truths can stoke the fires of fatalism, impact adversely upon our agency, cause us to focus on status rather than service, and carry us over into predestination” (Meeting the Challenges of Today, p. 151.)
In the Calvinist view foreknowledge and predestination are intimately connected. Hence the Westminster Confession contains this caution, “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (Westminster Confession 3:8).
 Mormon General Authority B.H. Roberts (Seventy) wrote,
God is [not] Omniscient up to the point that further progress in knowledge is impossible to him; but that all knowledge that is, all that exists, God knows. He is Universal Consciousness, and Mind-he is the All-knowing One, because he knows all that is known. (Seventy’s Course in Theology, vol. 4, p. 70-71)
 One might say, “Why not punish a mechanism.” But if Mr. Dodds is pure mechanism then we are too. If people are like pocket watches then why should we fret over smashing a few pocket watches? Our sense of moral responsibility recoils at the thought.