Petitionary Prayer

December 26, 2004 | 32 comments
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If we remember that the Father already knows our needs and desires, then the idea of prayer is strange. For in prayer we never tell the Father anything that he does not already know. A questioning friend might ask again: “Why pray if we say nothing that the person to whom we speak does not already know?� Indeed, critics of prayer have asked this kind of question for millennia.

One very common response is to say that if we think we pray so we can tell our Father in Heaven something he does not already know, we make a mistake. But it is not a mistake to speak with him, offering our thanks and adoration, and telling him our thoughts, frailties, needs, and desires. The mistake is to think that the purpose of prayer is to convey information. The mistake is in having the hubris to believe that our prayers might teach God something. We are the ones who are to learn through prayer. The Lord’s Prayer as given in 3 Nephi (13:9-13) omits the request for daily bread, suggesting that the importance of prayer has to do with our acknowledgment that we are dependent upon him rather than with our petitions that he will assuage our difficulties. On this view, even when I speak of my needs I do so as a way of remembering my powerlessness and his omnipotence rather than as a way of asking him to for aid. He already knows what I need and has determined to give me what he will apart from my petitions.

In spite of that, however, we are commanded to pray in our fields and over our flocks (Alma 34:20), in a context that makes it difficult to interpret this as anything but a command to petition God rather than only to learn about ourselves and our relation to him. Indeed, Alma speaks of Christ succoring his people—aiding them, relieving them, protecting them (Alma 7:12). (In fact, one can read the verse as teaching that he must learn to succor them.) If Christ has taken a body on himself so that he can succor us, then surely it is appropriate to ask for that succor. On this view, my petitions have an effect on what God will do. If I do not ask for aid, he may not give it. His response to my needs is at least partly dependent on my expression of those needs.

Is there some third way between these two understandings of prayer?

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32 Responses to Petitionary Prayer

  1. Blake on December 27, 2004 at 12:23 am

    As always Jim’s comments are thought-provoking and well-stated. I have always thought it strange that the Lord ended his prayer: “thy will be done.” And the most important prayer in the history of the world was given by the Savior and ended: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” For years I took this to state essentially — “Father, go ahead and do what you were going to do before I prayed anyway.” In other words, my prayer is essentially meaningless in the sense that it cannot effect a change because God will always do God’s will. Such an understanding always left me feeling like my prayer was futile — for if God loved me then he would do for me what I needed without my asking and he would do his will regardless of my asking.

    However, it seems to me that God has decided to share his power with us — to allow us to co-create. Thus, it seems to me that he has decided that if I ask for A, then he will give A and if I don’t then he will give me B. Or if I ask for A then he will give me C to teach me that asking for A is not what best teaches me. That is, God has decided to make the outcome of his plan for me dependent on me at least in part. I think of the Lord’s prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as a prayer that God’s will may done on earth; whereas if I don’t pray, then I am not open to his will and his will is not done on earth like it is in heaven. For God’s kingdom to come depends on our willingness to have his will reign on earth so that he is sovereign through our willingness to obey to him. Otherwise, God’s will is not done on earth and this is not his kingdom.

    Moreover, because I don’t believe that God knows what our free choices will be with absolute certainty I am open to the possibility that one of God’s primary purposes is to learn “if we will do whatsoever the Lord commands.” (Abr. 3) That is, one of God’s purposes for us is to learn whether we can be trustworthy and faithful to him. He has something to learn about us — and we have something to learn that we may or may not learn.

    One of the chief and essential principles of the LDS view of the purpose of human life is found in the “if” in the middle of l”if”e — for we cannot be guaranteed to return to him and we opposed the plan that would eliminate all risk to guarantee our salvation at the cost of our free agency or free will. God has chosen to leave us free to choose whether will return the love that he has always already offerred to us.

    However, couldn’t it be that one of the primary purposes of prayer is not merely petition but also learning, not merely asking but also thanking, not merely seeking answers but also giving adoration? So it is not necessarily an either-or but a both-and. The two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Of course, I realize that the view that God can learn about us, or learn from the things that he sufferred how to succor us, requires a very different view of God than the absolutist view of God that most LDS hold. Is it hubris to believe that God might learn something from me? I doubt it. It seems that the greatest among us learn the most even from the least and weakest rather than being closed to such learning. The greatest teacher is also the greatest pupil — and in this my love for God increases. The greatest solace to me arising from the LDS view is that I have something worthwhile to contribute even to God and that my life makes a difference even to the greatest. Greatness consists, it seems to me, not in being closed to or above such learning, but in openness to it.

  2. Geoff Johnston on December 27, 2004 at 2:39 am

    Another great post, Jim. (This Thomas Aquinas approach to doctrinal posts seems to work). Blake’s comments are excellent as well.

    I agree with both of you that what we pray for does make a difference with God. The scriptural references already mentioned are only of a fraction of the mountain of evidence showing that asking is often a prerequisite to receiving.

    Let me add to that my own experience… As I look back on the things that I have asked for in prayer in my life I am embarrassed by how trivial, fleeting, inane, and juvenile many of my requests of God have been. But the astonishing thing is how many of these requests have been heard and granted. I have wondered: Why would God give me some of those things that in retrospect seem so trivial? Upon further reflection I discovered my answer: They were important to me at the time. As a result of this realization I have often since taught “If it is important to you, it is important to God�. I believe this doctrine is true and my belief has been much strengthened by becoming a father of young children. How many of you parents have granted something to your 5 yr. old that you knew was very trivial but was important to her? Why did you do it? Because it was important to her so it became important to you. (We don’t focus so hard on the Fatherhood of God in the church for nothing.)

    As for the question of God knowing before hand what we will ask, I am not sure. We know his omnipotence has the caveat that He cannot control our choices – else we would not be true agents unto ourselves (see Lehi’s comments among others). I don’t know how our agency affects His omniscience (that gets into temporal vs. atemporal issues and is a question for the ages, not doubt). But I am convinced that as the literal offspring of God it is not hubris that leads us to believe our prayers influence God, it is a restored understanding of our actual relationship with Him – child to Father. This is unique to Mormon doctrine and I wonder if we take advantage of this knowledge enough…

  3. Mason Konkle on December 27, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    I’m not trying to be sarcastic at all here, but the Bible Dictionary entry on Prayer is excellent. It’s where I first learned that we pray not to change God’s will, but rather to change our own.

  4. Jim F. on December 27, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Blake: I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that my understanding of prayer is very much like yours. When the scriptures speak of God changing his mind, I think they should be understood literally. Abraham’s conversation with God had an influence on God’s decision regarding Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, and this is not something over which I think we disagree, I also think that a great deal of prayer–for me, perhaps the largest part–has to do with learning to make my will fit his will, in other words, with adoration and submission.

    Geoff Johnston: I’m glad you like that format. Obviously I do. I find it useful for helping me think about an issue. For me, the point of the format is not to generate a conclusion, but to generate thinking about the question. Any conclusion that I come to is only tentative, so it its usefulness is also tentative. But thinking about prayer or worthiness or whatever is helpful irrespective of the tentativeness of my conclusion. For me, that kind of thinking is a form of worship.

    Mason Konkle: I agree that the Bible Dictionary entry is very good. I especially like the sentence “The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.” But is that any different than the first view that I sketch? If so, perhaps you can help us think about how it is different. If not, then it doesn’t solve the tension that I tried to highlight.

  5. Geoff Johnston on December 27, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    Mason: Your objection is a reasonable one. If we assume that God has made his mind up on every question we might ask then it seems to fly in the face of some the comments here. But I don’t think God his mind made up on every potential issue we could ever petition Him about. Rather, I believe He works on infinite contingencies, all designed to bring us the greatest possible joy.

    The entire sentence in the Bible Dictionary seems to support this: “The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.â€? Clearly, God works on an “if/then” basis — the “if” depends on us and the “then” depends on him.

    So when He grants his children their wishes — even when trivial — it is not necessarily because they made God change his mind but rather it was one of many things he was already willing to grant. I think we underestimate how many things that can be.

    At the same time I wonder if God grants us some inane things some times just to bolster our faith to keep us trying. It is probably the petitions that are rejected that lead us to repent and conform our wills to His, but I get the feeling he has thrown me an occasional bone to keep me from giving up on the process over the years.

  6. clark on December 27, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    While I don’t really agree with the kind of critique of “absolutist” theology that Blake makes, I do agree that God can learn about us as we pray. He may know the facts about which we pray. Say needing money to pay bills for instance. However as we pray, we bring our soul and our environment together in such a way that we manifest our values. Now Blake will say that God can’t know that until the moment we do it, due to God not having foreknowledge. I think God does have foreknowledge, so I think he can potentially know the facts about our expressions as we pray in the future. (Whether he does or not for all particulars is an other matter — I’m willing to allow God limited focus and awareness)

    Still, there seems to be a difference between knowing the facts about the matter of what I will pray for and the experience of being prayed to by me. That is to say the experience of communication between any person and God is always more than simply any finite set of facts. There is a “feel” to the experience which I think is crucial.

  7. Blake on December 27, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    Jim: It seemed to me that we are close in the way we approach the issues. I appreciated your clarity and spurring me to thought (again).

    Clark: As usual, I don’t know what you are saying (I’m open to the possibility that it is my failure and not yours). How does God’s “feeling” something he hasn’t felt before change how he would respond had the prayer not been offered? If he knows how he will respond to my prayer before I ask it (as entailed in foreknowledge) then it follows that my prayer does not occasion a response — and there is also the difficulty of God’s inability to know his response based upon his response to what I will do (the viscious circularity problem of simple foreknowledge). While there may be a difference between feeling and knowing, it seems to me to be a difference without a distinction as far as the efficaciousness of petitionary prayer goes.

  8. Jim F. on December 27, 2004 at 8:37 pm

    Blake, isn’t Clark saying something like this: there is a difference between knowing something as a fact and knowing something as an experience? For example, I knew the facts about human sexuality before I was married, but I didn’t have sexual knowledge. There are no additional facts to be learned by having sexual knowledge, but that knowledge is infinitely different than the factual knowledge that I previously had. So God could know what I will pray for and even, perhaps, how he will answer that prayer, but that is not the same as his experience of hearing my prayer and answering it.

  9. Blake on December 27, 2004 at 9:32 pm

    Jim: I think that is exactly what Clark is saying. I simply fail to see how it changes anything regarding the efficaciousness of prayer. If God knows beforehand that I will ask for X and that he will respond by doing A, and this knowledge is primordial, then he never had a chance to think about or deliberate about his answer to me — it seems to simply be something he does without thought. If God knows at t1 that I will ask for X at T3, and he also knows that he will A in response to my prayer, there is nothing he can do about what he knows and his knowledge of what I will do does not guide his actions because it is logically prior to his response to the prayer — or at least I assume that Clark would so say. In this case, God’s foreknowledge is useless to him and I don’t know what having a “new feel” for something adds.

    I suppose LDS could claim that at some point “God” came to acquire such knowledge of what persons will freely pray for in the future because many seem to believe that God became God at some time after an eternity of not having been divine. If God came at some time to learn what I will freely ask, I think that Clark has some obligation to explain how that kind of knowledge could be acquired. In any event, I just don’t see that it changes anything. As I said, there is a distinction; it just doesn’t seem to make any difference regarding whether the prayer is efficacious in the sense that God does something he otherwise would not have done had the prayer not been offered.

  10. Blake on December 28, 2004 at 2:08 am

    Jim and Clark: In a very real sense, the problem posed by Alma 7 which asserts that God learned to succor his people by the things which he suffered is as much a problem for open theism as it is with more classical views. Even for the open theist, God has vicariously participated in our experiences of pain and suffering in the sense that he knows that we suffer. God knows all that can be known on such a view and within the scope of what can be known is certainly the experience of pain and suffering — for humans had experienced and known the tenor and feel of such experiences even before Christ became human. It seems to follow that humans grasped something about human experience that God did not — or could not — until he became human. So I agree with Clark that the distinction between knowing about (Latin sapere) and being acquainted with through experience (Latin conoscere) is an important one. There are aspects of knowledge — experiential knowledge — that can be gained only through experience. It follows that God can learn in certain respects from experience. Further, because the range of possible experiences is literally endless, so is God’s learning in this respect. As Clark has appropriately noted, all of this can be admitted without denying that God has foreknowledge. However, it seems to me that complete foreknowledge must be denied if prayer is efficacious in the sense that the scriptures teach it.

  11. Jack on December 28, 2004 at 2:13 am

    And yet there’s that odd little phrase “Now the Spirit knoweth all things…”.

  12. Clark on December 28, 2004 at 2:22 am

    The point is Blake, that while God’s future acts will be the same, God will not be the same. Jim’s original comment was about whether our prayers teach God anything, and it seems to me that they may. Your focus on learning as only being learning if it makes a change of behavior seems questionable.

  13. Blake on December 28, 2004 at 10:47 am

    Clark: I conceded in my last post that there is a sense in which God learns from experience even if he has foreknowledge — so your response seems to assume that I am making a claim that I am not. Even if God knows that X, the experience of X adds a dimension to his knowledge that he did not previously possess. My (second) suggestion was that prayer is not efficacious in the sense that it occasions God to use his knowledge to do what he would not do had the prayer not been offered — and that seems to me to be the relevant sense in which the scriptures and we believe that our prayers influence God. It is this second sense of influencing God through prayer that is not possible if God has (exhaustive) foreknowledge. (The “exhaustive” is important because I believe that there are senses in which God has foreknowledge based upon his plan and his power to bring about his word).

  14. clark on December 28, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    Blake, this second question though gets into the muddy waters of counter-factuals.

    Consider that God would only chose to do X if he feels Y. He knows he will feel Y, but until he does feel Y he can’t do X. He feels Y because of the prayer. Thus without the prayer he won’t do X.

    I think the problem is that you’re trying to conceive of it in terms of how the prayer would change the potential future and in a fixed future entailed by foreknowledge, the future doesn’t change. Yet if you simply avoid thinking of it in those terms and ask what event is necessary for some future event, then the problem disappears.

    Put simply, I think you assume that knowing I’ll do some future X entails that I’ll do it regardless of what happens. But this is injecting fatalism where I don’t think it fits. Clearly, as you admit, there is in the sketch I outlined new knowledge and that new knowledge can causally effect future events. (I’m not assuming causal determinism, mind you)

  15. Blake on December 29, 2004 at 2:42 am

    Clark: You miss the point. Given the fixed future it is fatalistic. It cannot be changed even by God. What will be is logically prior to his knowledge of what will be and thus his knowledge is useless — if God knows that x, it doesn’t matter if he must wait until the prayer is offered to bring about x because he can’t change it and it is fated to occur by some reality outside of his control since “that x” is certain logically prior to his act. You want to make distinctions between fatalism and a fixed future, but they are the same. So even if God cannot bring it about that x unless I pray, he cannot fail to bring it about that x and I cannot fail to pray — x is fated. You can believe that God is stuck with such a fated future if you choose (pun and irony intended) but that is not the God that tested Abraham to see what he would do or the God who learns about us by seeing whether we will keep the commandments. It is also not a God who can geuninely interact in prayer. In other words, your view entails that virtually everything is fated, my prayer, God’s answer to the prayer and not even God can change this fixed future — and the future is what it is fixed to be even before God can use his knowledge or plan for it because it just is that way independent of God and independent of us. Simple foreknowledge is not only useless but it entails that everything that occurs is the result of a blind fate — and I doubt that any Christian (or theist for that matter) could accept that result.

  16. clark on December 29, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Blake, you’re missing the point. You’re looking at the future as something that is changed. That’s my point. If you stop looking at prayer as having to change the future rather than be in harmony with the future then the problem resolved. To claim that there is no difference between a fixed future and fatalism is clearly false.

  17. Todd on December 29, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    I didn’t read all the comments, so forgive me if this is a repeat.

    In the Bible Dictionary, it says that prayer is a form of work. So one reason we petition God for things he is already aware of is that it is work we must do to obtain a blessing.

  18. Blake on December 29, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    Clark: So what is the difference between a fixed future and fatalism? Fatalism is the view that the future is what it shall be as a fixed reality and there is nothing we can do to change what it shall be — ergo, a fixed future entails fatalism. So it isn’t only not plainly false that a fixed future entails fatalism, it is “plainly true.”

    Further, I would not accept your talk of “changing the future” since it assumes that “the future” is already there as a reality to be changed from what it is. I see the future as a realm of open possibilities among which we choose and which possible future is real depends on the choices we make in the moment of free decision.

    Further, you avoided the entire discussion of God being powerless to plan for or bring about a future different than the one he sees he is stuck with before he can deliberate about it. In other words, God is already powerless to change the future that he sees will be. It also follows that what occurs is not the result of intelligence or God’s planning — it just is and God is stuck with it. It is the opposite of providence — it is supreme mindlessness (in the sense that the “fixed future” exists independently of God’s intelligent planning or providence) and powerlessness.

  19. Jim F. on December 29, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    Todd, if we must work to obtain a blessing, then why is what we get a blessing rather than payment for our work? (See Romans 4:4-5 for Paul’s argument that blessings don’t require work.)

  20. Clark on December 29, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    Fatalism entails that changing current events can’t change future events. However if you note, I was very specific that current events partially determine future events. So the claim doesn’t hold.

  21. J. Stapley on December 29, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    I am still formulating my beliefs on the foreknowledge and or finiteness of God, so I can’t contribute much in that area (for what it’s worth, I’m considering a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle with respects to agency) . Something that hasn’t come up that I think is important is the degree to which our faith determines our prayers. (Alma 31:38).

    I don’t think our petitioning per se or our arguments are all that new to the Lord or accurate to his perspective. I doubt that he has ever walked away from a prayer and said: “you know, I wish I would have thought of that�. I realize that is hyperbolic, but regardless of the nature of God, I imagine that he is a pretty quick study and has a good bead on what is going on.

    What I think does matter is our Faith. I admit that I employ a very explicit definition of faith, as well. Lack of faith is something so powerful it can negate the atonement (Moroni 7) and faith is so powerful as to bring miracle. Prayer, I believe, is the facilitator of faith.

  22. Blake on December 30, 2004 at 2:08 am

    Clark asserts: “Fatalism entails that changing current events can’t change future events. However if you note, I was very specific that current events partially determine future events. So the claim doesn’t hold.”

    What you do now cannot change the future from what it is if it is fixed (and that God has foreknowledge entails that the future is fixed). The fact that your present action is a part of the explantion that “determines” the future does not change this fact. Doing an act that “determines future events” and being able to change future events by our present actions are two distinct things — and you assume that are the same in your response.

    A fixed future entails fatalism. As Richard Taylor defined fatalism in his Metaphysics (4th ed.) — “Fatalism is the belief that whatever happens is unavoidable … The fatalist, then, is someone who believes that whatever happens is and always was unavoidable. He thinks it is not up to him what will happen a thousand years hence, next year, tomorrow, or the very next moment … A fatalist thus thinks of the future in the way we all think of the past, for eveyone is a fatalist as he looks back on things.” (p. 52) Thus, your view not only entails fatalism, it is in effect a definition of fatalism. Neither you nor God can avoid what is future if the future has the same unchangeable or fixed reality as the past.

    Further, changing current events cannot change future events if the future is already fixed and given the same way as the past — no matter what you do the fixed future future will occur and is unavoidable. If God knows that X, then X will occur and it cannot be avoided by God or changed by anything you do. Why pray for God to bring about what is unavoidable and true even before he can deliberate or plan it? If what you do now at Tn can change what God knew at tn-1 will occur at tn+1, then you assert a power that only one who believes that the past can be changed can assert. Most just don’t accept that we can change the past.

    However, if (as I suspect you intend) my actions are only a part of the causal chain (or whatever “determines” future events) that brings about the fixed future, it follows only that what I do now is also fixed and it doesn’t change the fixed future in any way, it merely adds a necessary cause to bring about the fixed future that is as unavoidable as your present actions that must bring it about. Thus, my prayer is as unavoidable as the future that God is fated to bring about and it isn’t my prayer but the fact that the future is fixed that explains both why I pray and why God brings it about. I won’t repeat my viscious circularity argument here (it is on pp. 143-48 of my book) which shows that the entire explanation is incoherent.

  23. Clark on December 30, 2004 at 2:39 am

    Blake, as you know, I reject causality as fundamental. (I think the appearance of causality an emergent feature of the world) Further I reject determinism of the sense that the current state of affairs and the laws of nature entail the future.

    As I said, when you look at it in terms of change I fundamentally think you mischaracterize how to view it. I think that if one views it in that fashion that what you say follows. I just think that way of viewing the world to be inappropriate.

    Regarding definitions of fatalism. As you know there aren’t merely one. For instance the Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as:

    The belief, not to be confused with causal determinism, that deliberation and action are pointless because the future will be the same no matter what we do. According to the famous ‘idle argument’ of antiquity, ‘if it is fated for you to recover from this illness, you will recover whether you call in a doctor or not; similarly, if it is fated for you not to recover from this illnes, you will not recover whether you call in a doctor or not; and either your recovery or non-recover is fated; therefore there is no point in calling in a doctor.’ Thus all actions and choices are ‘idle’ because they cannot affect the future. Determinists reject fatalism on the grounds that it may be determined that we can be cured only by calling the doctor.

    I recognize philosophers are want to redefine terms. But I truly believe that divorcing a term not only from its historic roots but its historic arguments is quite misleading. I recognize why libertarians and perhaps others might wish to do this. But I don’t think it helpful in the least.

    That’s why I brought up the issue of counterfactuals. If I didn’t not pray, God would not have done X. But because I do pray God can do X and can prepare for X prior to my prayer. You get at this in your final paragraph, which was indeed what I was getting at. (Minus the imposition of strong causality or determinism)

    Clearly I disagree with your argument in your book. But I’ll not respond to that here. I don’t believe the fact the future is fixed explains in the least why I pray. It merely establishes that I pray. I think those two questions fundamentally different ones.

  24. Blake on December 30, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Clark: I concede that even a fatalist can believe that “I pray contributes to God doing X” — but it doesn’t change the fact that both the prayer and God’s doing X were unavoidable and therefore fated. That is why Taylor tells the story of Osmo — a chap who finds a book that tells everything about his life, including its future, in minute detail. It says that Osmo will die in Miami in a plane crash on Sept. 26 2005. He boards a plane headed for Minnesota on Sept. 26, 2005 and when he hears that the plane has been diverted to Miami he rushes the cockpit to get the pilots to turn around and his response causes the pilots to lose control of the plane to crash in Miami. So you see, his actions could contribute to the unavoidable and fixed future in the same you say prayers influence God to bring about answers to them.

    So even a strong determinist or a fatalist can assert that “if I pray, then God brings it about that x” (and you can adopt a non-causal reading into “brings about” if you want to avoid issues of causation). Actually, if you’ll look at my post you’ll see that I carefully avoided casual implications to privilege your peculiar rejection of causality (but there is no way to avoid backtracking counterfactuals in your discussion of “if I pray then God does x”). The fact remains, if the future is fixed then God cannot do anything the avoid the fixed future by anything he does, we cannot contribute to bringing about (causally or non-causally) any future by prayer other than what is fixed and it remains unavoidable. God is powerless and so are we to bring about any future other than the fixed future.

    Depending on what you believe about how God comes to know this fixed future (and especially if it is fixed as you describe in your post on your blog), it appears that the future is fixed independently of God’s act — and thus his answer to the pray is also fixed prior to any act or deliberation by God. Eergo, the answer to the prayer is explained by facts independent of God and it follows that it is not really God who brings about the answer to our prayer but whatever it was that explains that the future is fixed. That is a parallel to the argument in my book and it shows that God is stuck with a fixed future before he can act and that his foreknowledge is useless to him.

  25. clark on December 30, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    The claim that both God doing X and my praying are “unavoidable” tends to beg the question by bringing in more assumptions than I presented. i.e. the “why” of those events. You are assuming a determinism of everything but I explicitly denied that. I believe there can be a fact about future matters but do not believe any future state of affairs is logically entailed by the current state of affairs and the laws of the universe. i.e. I give quantum indeterminacy an ontological place.

    I also don’t claim that the future is fixed independently of God’s act. I merely believe that the manifestation of acts and causes are secondary phenomena and not fundamental phenomena.

  26. Blake on December 30, 2004 at 3:27 pm

    Clark: I am not assuming determinism at all — merely that the future is fixed. If you believe that the future is fixed by God (as you now say), then you have even greater problems than you appear to think because such a view is essentially Calvinism. On the other hand, if you believe that the future is fixed independently of God, then you are stuck with fatalism. Neither alternative is acceptable. It seems that you owe some explanation as to how the future can be fixed and yet not entail one of these alternatives.

  27. Clark on December 30, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Blake, as you know I don’t think the future is fixed solely by God. Merely that the “why” of what is fixed can’t be ignored. To say that you are only assuming the future is fixed is incorrect, otherwise your comments don’t follow. But I suspect it might just be fruitful at this point to say that we fundamentally disagree and that disagreement hinges upon the primordial nature of reality itself. To me your arguments depend upon certain temporal assumptions regarding the progression from one state of affairs to an other and what makes that possible. As I see it you allow only two choices. That it is determined or that it is undetermined and open at that time. That to me is a false dichotomy.

  28. Blake on December 30, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    Clark: So what is your third option between either fixed at t or not fixed at t (where t is any future moment)? Let me make clear that since both of us reject causal determinism, it doesn’t do any good to try to speak in such terms — we both agree that notions of causality are so problematic that no one has succeeded in giving a coherent account of how things could be causally determined at t.

  29. Geoff Johnston on December 30, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    Clark, I think Blake has you on this one.

    His arguments on how a fixed future mean that God has no real choice make sense. You haven’t yet answered his oft repeated question of how you can defend this fixed future belief — whether it is fixed by God or outside of God. It does seem to be essentially a variation on fatalism.

    You made a passing swipe at blaming temporal assumptions — but that certainly begs more fleshing out. Based on the soundness of Blake’s arguments, I’m curious of how you will defend your position. Your response in #27 seems to be a feeble attempt considering your abilities.

    Perhaps you lean toward the concept that God lives out of time, in an atemporal state, and therefore can see all things and times at once? That is an argument I’ve heard by someone whose opinions I highly respect. He used Alma 40:8 as evidence that only man lived in a temporal state, not God. “Now whether there is more than one time appointed for men to rise it mattereth not; for all do not die at once, and this mattereth not; all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.â€?

    I have to admit that don’t really buy that explanation either and I do believe God lives a temporal existence of some sort – even if it is different than ours. I’m also not sure how that resolves the fatalism problem anyway. Is that your alternative to the view Blake has or is it something else?

  30. Clark on December 30, 2004 at 7:35 pm

    Geoff, I’ve fleshed out ways of seeing the temporal problems on my blog before. Blake obviously isn’t convinced. But Libertarian free will is so wrapped up in his fundamental premises that I don’t believe any argument that I could remotely present will convince him. One way to conceive of the problem is to ask when the future becomes fixed.

    But fundamentally the whole point about fatalism is that the events between now and the point in question don’t matter. It is that to which I object. Fundamentally I think they must be present. Now why they are present is certainly a reasonable place to disagree and it is there that Blake and my positions will differ. However my complaint was the misuse of fatalism in the sense that what I do doesn’t matter. Clearly it does matter. That’s why I brought up the issue of counterfactuals.

    I don’t think God lives outside of time, depending upon what one means by time. The problem is in diciphering what that means. As I’ve typically heard it within Mormonism it involves trying to merge the Augustinian view of God with the Mormon view of God within the world and embodied. I don’t think they can be reconciled. That’s not to say one can’t talk about that whole notion in an intelligible fashion. Just that I’ve not seen it.

    One fruitful (in my opinion) approach, which I’ve written about on my blog a lot, is the concept of Linde multiverses. Basically the big bang is a big bang from an other universe. Indeed I think Linde multiverses or something similar is necessary for the Mormon notion of eternity. However that then means that each universe has its own time line. So a being in an other universe, while still being within time, won’t be within our time.

    If you are interested in this, here are some links from my blog.
    Four Dimensionalism
    Multiverses and Anthropic Principles
    Responsibility and Consciousness

    There are others and we’ve been discussing this a long time. I’ve written a bit on my blog regarding the current thread as well.

  31. Blake on December 30, 2004 at 11:17 pm

    Geoff: It seems to me that Clark is correct that to the extent we want to say that prayers “matter,” a believer in a fixed future can coherently say that “God would not have done A if I had not prayed.” We bring about god’s response in a counterfactual sense (which is a very weak sense, but it is still some sense). However, our prayers don’t matter in the sense that God had any ability to other than A if it was fixed that God A. Given Clark’s position, it seems to me that the facts about the future are established by facts outside of God’s control (i.e., the “single choice” we made at the time of the big bang from which all of our temporal choices follow). Thus, it seems to me to follow from Clark’s position that God answers my prayer because I caused him to by the single choice I made at the beginning of this universe! It seems to me that such a view of God at our mercy is not really a serious theological contender — and it is a far cry from the scriptural notion of God responding to our prayers in my view.

    However, I agree with Clark that in some sense LDS theology needs something close to Linde universes to make sense of its claim that there are eternal, uncreated realities. I’m still working on what that means for our theology, but preliminarily it seems too early to get very definite since the entire field is speculation squared.

  32. Clark on December 30, 2004 at 11:51 pm

    I think the confusion arises because of the distinction between a metaphysical discussion and discussion of theoretical physics and a practical discussion. As I see it, Blake’s position entails those two being very closely related while for me they tend to be very separate.

    To give an analogy of why I think they are separate, consider what happens when you throw a ball. All sorts of complex electrical and chemical processes are going on. You are engaged in various mechanical processes. The substance that is you throwing and the substance being thrown can be described in terms of gravity, quantum mechanics and more. To really analyze at a fundamental level what is going on will bear no resemblance to our experience of throwing the ball. Indeed a discussion of quantum mechanics, energy distributions and then moreso still the metaphysics of physical threory will appear so abstract and odd, that one might well wonder that it has any connection to our experience of throwing the ball at all.

    Now with respect to free will, I think the same situation occurs. I’m suggesting that what is really going on is different from our naive perception of the experience. Further I think that it is wrapped up in those very metaphysical and physical questions that seem so odd.

    Yet our perception of choosing is that at any given moment we choose then and that this choice is fundamental then in such a way that the future (which we can’t “see” or “know” in a serious way) doesn’t exist. The entire critique Blake offers is thus hinged on this regular experience of the world.

    I don’t think Blake would disagree there. Indeed he’s said many similar things.

    What I say is that what is really going on and what we naturally perceive to be going on aren’t the same. Our intuitions and experiences of what is going on for any region physics can examine tend to be wrong. Thus I seriously doubt it would be right here.

    Yet at a religious level the real issue is an empirical one, and not a metaphysical one. It seems that within Mormonism many people claim to have the future revealed to them in one sense or an other – often in great detail or even presented in a vision like a movie. Further, once again to appeal to intuition, we assume when we pray that God has the capability of knowing what we pray about.

    So in a sense, the issue is how much one is committed to foreknowledge of the future. And that is, I suspect, tied somewhat to how one reads the scriptural passages talking about foreknowledge. (And Blake certainly offers ways to read them differently than we normally do) However I think more relevant is whether we feel that we’ve had experiences that hinge on going knowing the future, or whether people we know and trust claim such knowledge. i.e. for a Mormon, I suspect the real issue is empirical and note metaphysical.

    Of course since people tend not to discuss such matters it’s hard to really make that a topic of discussion. Further those who do talk about such matters tend to not be trusted. (Heavens, if someone replied to this message claiming a vision of the future, I know I’d disbelieve them)

    This ends up reminding me of the recent controversy regard Judge Posner’s comments. (This was a story here a few days ago) One of the key points Posner made was to suggest that many of our reasons for belief are actually rationalizations made after we already believe. That is, why we believe is often unrelated to the philosophical arguments we bring to bear. While I certainly don’t think I always agree, I think it is true far more often than we care to admit. I personally think that it is likely the case in this debate. That’s not to downplay in the least the value of debating reasons. Just that I think there is more going on than reasoning.

    (BTW – I discuss a few issues related to Posner here and here)