The Foreknowledge of God

December 24, 2003 | 3 comments
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I just fulfilled a longstanding promise to myself: I finally read the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I have had many false starts on this project over the years. Asimov was not a great stylist, though he had many interesting ideas. The Foundation books are animated by one such idea: psychohistory. For those who haven’t read the books, I would describe psychohistory as the use of history, psychology, sociology, and mathematics to examine the behavior of large groups of people. While individual behavior cannot be predicted, psychohistory can (more or less) accurately predict the fate of millions. Is this how God works?

This is terribly naive of me, but I am interested in a dilettantish sort of way in free agency and the foreknowledge of God. As far as I can tell from no research beyond sitting in Gospel Doctrine classes, the Mormon conception of free agency and the foreknowledge of God is something like this: God knows each of us so well that He can predict our every choice. Sometimes, this idea is coupled with an appeal to our earthly experience: “just like parents can predict how their children will behave.” (Please ignore the fact that our children often surprise us.) Now, this conception has served me quite well as it simultaneously allows for prophecy and free will.

Still, something nags at me when I think about this topic. Maybe it is the fact that we ask God to intervene in our affairs. If we are engaged in a joint enterprise, isn’t our success or failure necessarily determined by God? Seems like a pretty constrained view of free agency. Psychohistorical foreknowledge, on the other hand, offers an expansive view of free agency that comports more closely with how I feel about my life.

I realize that this is not a new topic, so perhaps I could get some help from the philosophers in the group. What am I missing?

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3 Responses to The Foreknowledge of God

  1. Eric James Stone on December 24, 2003 at 12:38 pm

    My belief is that God’s foreknowledge must be much more than “psychohistorial.” If not, then God could be surprised by random events (such as the appearance of a mutant like the Mule in the Foundation series.)

    I used to have a problem reconciling free will and foreknowledge. But in discussing the topic with my mother years ago, she gave an explanation that satified me. This is approximately how the conversation went:

    “Do you remember what you did last weekend?”

    “Yes.”

    “Did you have the freedom to choose what you did then?”

    “Yes.”

    “Does the fact that you remember now what you did last weekend mean you were not free to choose at that time?”

    “No.”

    “God remembers the future.”

    For me, that explanation worked. Maybe its because I’ve read enough time-travel science fiction that the concept of remembering future events doesn’t seem too strange to me.

  2. Clark Goble on December 26, 2003 at 4:51 pm

    One way to resolve all this is to say that God knows every possibility. Thus he won’t be surprised by the *existence* of something (like the Mule) and thereby knows all universals. However he may not know the particulars of what this world’s manifestation will be. (i.e. which, of all the myriad of possibilities will be actualized)

    I think this resolves all the concerns of foreknowledge by people like Bruce R. McConkie while keeping open eternal progression as taught by many other general authorities.

  3. Aaron Shafovaloff on January 7, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    I highly recommend reading Ephesians 1, John 6:35-45, Romans 9, and Acts 2 & 4, for more info on this issue.

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