A Faithful Copy (except for present format) of a Letter Sent to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
Which was “lost” or ignored
3555 South Oakwood Street
Salt Lake City, Utah 84109
October 19, 1984
202 West 300 North
Salt Lake City, Utah 84103
To the editors:
Concerning the incompatibility of human free will and divine foreknowledge
(“The Mormon Concept of God” by Blake T. Ostler, Dialogue 17:2, Summer 1984),
I am not convinced either by the formal proof Ostler provides (p.69, n.11),
or by his rebuttal of Augustine’s objections to that line of reasoning
(pp.69ff.). I would handle the problem this way:
There exists, temporally distinct from reality, truth, of and
concerning reality. (Explanation: Tuesday, Jones mows his lawn. It is true
Wednesday that on Tuesday Jones mowed his lawn, although on Wednesday the
reality of Tuesday no longer exists.)
Truth is motivated or generated by reality; i.e., it is secon-
dary to reality. That is, truth is of, and concerns reality; reality is
not of or concerning truth. (Explanation: The truth on Wednesday that
Jones mowed his lawn on Tuesday, does not motivate the reality on Tuesday
that Jones mowed his lawn. Wednesday’s truth is of, and concerns Tuesday’s
reality; it is motivated or generated by Tuesday’s reality, and not vice
As truth of reality may exist after the reality it concerns
ceased to exist, so there may exist truth of a reality which does not yet
exist. (Explanation: As it is true on Wednesday that Jones mowed/mows his
lawn on Tuesday, so it is true on Monday that Jones mows/will mow his lawn
Humans have free will. In any particular exercise of free
will, a human has the power within himself to bring about either or any
of at least two mutually exclusive events.
Postulates 1 and 2 coincide with human experience. That is,
human experience entails a partial knowledge of previously existing
reality. While postulates 1 and 2 suggest the third, the third has no
relevance to human experience. Humans do not have access to a truth that
precedes reality except as incidentally, where a future reality may be
predicted through extrapolation from a prior reality. In other words
humans do not possess on Monday the truth they partially possess on
Wednesday concerning Tuesday’s reality. Though it is postulated that it
is true Monday that Jones will mow his lawn Tuesday, that truth has no
relevance to humans since it is not available to them.
The notion of divine omniscience entails the idea that God does have
access to truth which precedes reality, and which is still of, and concerning,
i.e., secondary to, motivated or generated by, that reality.
God’s omniscience consists of access to all truth.
God’s foreknowledge consists of access to truth of, and
concerning, future events.
God’s foreknowledge of reality does not determine that reality.
This follows directly, since God’s foreknowledge consists simply of
access to truth preceding and concerning reality, which truth is postulated
or defined as being secondary to, or generated by reality, and not vice versa.
God’s foreknowledge is compatible with human free will.
Human exercise of free will pertains to reality. God’s foreknowledge
of reality consists of access to truth concerning reality before that reality
exists. That truth is postulated or defined as being distinct from, and
motivated by reality, and not vice versa. Therefore God’s foreknowledge is
of and concerning, secondary to, motivated or generated by, that reality,
which may consist in part of events brought about by free agents. God’s
access to that truth does not affect the truth, nor does the truth motivate
the outcome of the event which it concerns.
Thus we have proof of each of two opposing theses. One of the two is
fallacious. If our proof is valid, it must be possible to show where
Ostler’s goes wrong:
“1. If I am free with respect to X, then I have a genuine option to do or
refrain from doing X.” –OK.
“2. If an option is genuine (i.e., not merely apparent), then both doing
and refraining from doing X must be logically possible.” –While the intent
of this statement is clear on the surface, it is so poorly stated as to be
ambiguous: it may be interpreted to mean that “both doing and refraining
from doing X” must be simultaneously “logically possible,” to guarantee a
“genuine” rather than an “apparent” option. While admittedly such an absurd
interpretation was not intended, the force of this observation will be seen
below. A philosopher can never be too careful in his semantic formulation
of an argument. Such statements as “…when freedom is conceived in this
stronger way a major problem arises if God foresees precisely what must
happen” (Ostler, p.69), are all too common in typical treatment of this
problem. Here “will” should be substituted for “must” to avoid the tautology,
i.e., to avoid incorporating the deduction within the premise.
“3. God exists and has foreknowledge (i.e., for all X, if X, then God knows
that X).” –OK
“4. Whatever God knows (infallibly believes) is true.” –This seemingly
self-evident statement in fact serves an important and deceptive function,
which can be appreciated when considered in light of the opposing proof.
Statement 4 serves to define “truth” as emanating from or dependent on
God’s knowledge, which is for its part taken to be independent and self-
existent. No attempt is made to distinguish this “truth” from reality,
or to explicitly define its relationship to reality.
“5. Hence, if God believes that I will do X, then it is analytic that I will
do X (3,4).” –This does follow from steps 3 and 4, but the problems inherited
from step 4 remain.
“6. If it is analytic that I will do X, then refraining from doing X is not
logically possible (5).” –This correctly follows from step 5. At this
point we must analyze our objections to step 4 as they apply to step 6.
Obviously if it is true that I will do X, it cannot also be true that I
will refrain from doing X. But this possibility, of doing both of two
mutually exclusive deeds, that is, our absurd interpretation of step 2, is
now required in order to satisfy step 2’s definition of a “genuine” option.
“7. Hence, I do not have a genuine option to do or refrain from doing X
(2,3,6).” –Rather, this should be stated in the language of step 2, from
which it supposedly derives: “Hence, I do not have a genuine option to do
refrain from doing X.” –A rather obvious deduction.
“8. Hence, I am not free with respect to any morally significant action X
(1,2,7).” –Given the definition now assumed by “genuine option”, this is
certainly true; we are not “free” (i.e., capable) of doing simultaneously
anything and its opposite.
The argument indeed flows semantically from start to finish, but the problem
has been conceived and formulated in such confusion that there was no chance
of arriving at a significant conclusion. In contrast to the first argument,
the latter 1) does not take into account a ‘truth’ which exists temporally
independent of reality; 2) does not allow for a ‘truth’ which is always
secondary to reality. Its ‘truth’ is derived from God’s knowledge and then
conflated with ‘reality’. It ignores any generative relationship between
outcomes of choices made (subsets of reality) and God’s foreknowledge of
these outcomes (truth, or access to truth), thus never coming to grips with
the utter circularity of the argument (the event motivates God’s foreknowledge
of the event, which in turn motivates the event, cancelling the possibility
of an alternative event). And in all this the philosophers in question
congratulate themselves at sidestepping any considerations of causality!
In brief, this argument is only valid on the premise that God’s knowledge
motivates all reality (which premise automatically precludes free will),
or by a definition of free will consisting of “genuine” options of being
able to do a thing and not do it at the same time. Since the first argument
is not based on such premises, it arrives at a different conclusion, where
free will and divine omniscience are compatible.
Now, if Augustine was right after all, in his objection to the incompatibility
of divine omniscience and human free will, of what import is that to Mormon
theology? Both are fundamentally incorporated into Joseph Smith’s theology.
Several scriptures expressly affirm God’s omniscience (2Ne 9:20, Al 7:13,
26:35, Mrm 8:17, Mro 7:22, Mss 1:6; for references to free will see e.g.,
2Ne 2:27, 10:23), while two attest specifically to his absolute foreknowledge:
“I know the end from the beginning” (Abr 2:8); and “…according to his
foreknowledge of all things” (Al 13:7).
Additionally, we have a number of accounts which have as their basis the
theology explicitly taught in the scriptures already cited. Nephi witnesses
in vivid detail Mary’s beauty (1Ne 11:5), the baptism of Jesus, his ministry
and crucifixion (1Ne 11:27-33), and the destruction of his own nation
(1Ne 15:5). The promise of Nephite destruction becomes a dated prophecy
at Alma 45:10. Nephi’s detailed prediction of the murderer’s confession at
Hel 9:25-27 echoes the tale at Mrk 14:13-16; in both accounts, either fore-
knowledge is required, or the predicted behavior is impelled (i.e., not free).
According to Joseph Smith’s theology, God’s prophets could preach sermons
custom made to future audiences (2Ne 29:5-6), since the prophets could be
shown their future deeds (Mrm 8:35). The solution Joseph Smith provided
for the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, that is, a replacement
which corresponded chronologically to the lost history, was one that assumed
or required detailed foreknowledge on God’s part. In fact the classical
concept of prophecy–one that distinguishes between promise (contingent),
prognosis (extrapolated), and prophecy (future history), so thoroughly
embedded in Judeao-Christian and LDS scripture, always assumes divine fore-
knowledge. For fairly clear-cut examples in the Old Testament, consider
Joseph’s prophetic dreams (Gen 40), or the traditional and facile attri-
bution to Isaiah of a prophecy naming Cyrus as Israel’s deliverer (Is 44:28,
But more fundamental to the dependance of God’s providence on his foreknowledge
in the Mormon view, is the doctrine of atonement. It is no accident that
the most explicit statement concerning God’s absolute foreknowledge (Al 13:7)
occurs within a discussion of “a preparatory redemption” (Al 13:3). Jacob’s
exclamation of admiration for God’s omniscience (2Ne 9:20) similarly occurs
in a discussion of the atonement: Jacob apparently refers to God’s ability
to foresee the need of a redemption, which foresight prevented mankind’s
universal damnation. In Joseph Smith’s doctrine, Christianity predated the
mortal Christ. Faith and repentance could lead to a remission of sins
centuries before the atoning sacrifice was performed (Enos 6:8). From
God’s vantage point that sacrifice was as though present, far in advance
of its reality. It was efficacious before it was effected. And only
Christ could carry it out. There was only one Begotten Son of God; no
replacement was waiting in the wings. Christ was Jehovah, and the future
redeeming “condescension” (1Ne 11:16) consisted of the fact that “God him-
self ” (Mos 15:1), “the very Eternal Father” (Mos 16:15), would assume a
mortal existence. As a man he would be tempted, exercising moral free will,
thus incurring the possibility of committing sin, any commission of which
would have undone the plan of salvation. Moreover Jesus seriously contem-
plated withdrawing from his mission’s consumation (Mt 26:39, 42: cf. D&C 19:18-
19). Jesus was careful to leave the final decision in his Father’s hands,
since Jesus himself held the real option of declining to participate in the
redeeming act. But God perceived in advance the success of the Redeemer’s
mission. God’s providence took into account the truth of all reality,
however impossible it was to extrapolate that reality from know conditions.
And what was known to God could be shown to Nephi and Enoch (Mss 7:47) as
easily as to any who should live after the Savior’s mortal life.
There may exist methodologies which will cast into doubt the historiography
of these testimonies, but these do not yet include proofs of the incompati-
bility of divine foreknowledge and human free will. Jacob 4:12-13 nicely
summarizes the discussion: “And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you
these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to
a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection
and the world to come? Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him
prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth
and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and
of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested
unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.”
The last sentence brings to mind D&C 93:24, which accurately apprehends
the relationship of truth to reality: “And truth is knowledge of things
as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” While for our
purposes it was preferable to speak of “truth” in the abstract, floating
state, the prophet justifiably equates truth with someone’s knowledge,
presumably God’s knowledge. Far better to equate God’s knowledge with
“truth” than with the “reality” which of God is known.
A. G. Foster, Jr.