In chapter 8 of The Attributes of God, Ostler continues grappling with the question of human agency in relation to God’s foreknowledge. The professional literature generated by this kind of theological question is wide and deep and the field is no particular speciality of mine. On these kinds of questions, Ostler is much better read than I am.
The basic problem is this: “If there is anything in [an agent's] circumstances which precludes a person from exercising a power, then the power cannot be exercised under those circumstances” (249). Blake argues that God’s strong foreknowledge is just the kind of causally implicated circumstance that compromises a person’s freedom to exercise their agency. As a result, the power to choose in this instance is no real power and agency is compromised. I recommend a close reading of the chapter’s details.
As a non-specialist, though, I’m wondering about the larger context that frames these really difficult questions.
Both with respect to the larger question of whether agency is compatible with determinism and with respect to the narrower question of whether agency is compatible with God’s foreknowledge, the difficulty seems to me to revolve around a kind of figure/ground problem.
The figure/ground problem is this: how do the actions of a local figure fit with the generic background of conditions and circumstances that constitute its field of action? Or, more pointedly, how can the local exercise of a heterogeneous agency be compatible with a pre-existing field of homogeneous and comprehensive conditions?
With respect to the narrower issue of God’s foreknowledge, the question is: how can the heterogeneity of a local agency be compatible with a pre-existing field of conditions and circumstances already packaged, totalized, and homogenized by God’s absolute and limitless foreknowledge?
With respect to the wider issue of determinism, the question is: how can the heterogeneity of a local agency be compatible with a field of conditions and circumstances already pre-formatted as a single, homogeneous background of cause and effect?
In short, how can a local agent be invested with power to act freely and heterogeneously in relation to a homogeneous, pre-formatted field?
This is a really difficult question. It shows up again and again in philosophy in a thousand different forms.
I want to suggest, in what may be a naive way, that part of the problem here may be with the form of the question itself.
Blake, for instance, argues against God’s absolute foreknowledge on the grounds that, given the background of such a homogeneous, pre-formatted field, agency is compromised. The centrality of agency ought to trump our commitment to the existence of that kind of pre-formatted and totalized field of foreknowledge. So absolute foreknowledge is out. (I think this is right.)
But why not make the same argument in relation to the wider ontological question? Why not argue that agency ought to trump our assumption that actions unfold in the context of a field of conditions and circumstances already pre-formatted by a single, homogeneous background of cause and effect?
In short, why think about agency as something that unfolds in a single, smooth, field period?
What if there is no single, shared, pre-formatted, metaphysical background against which agency plays out? If the reality of agency is incompatible with the idea of such a field, then what if we ditched the field?
What’s the alternative?
There’s no space to give a very convincing answer here, but the alternative is roughly something like this.
Rather than agency playing out in relation to a single, shared, and pre-formatted field, agency plays out only in relation to other agents. There is no absolute figure/ground relation. There is no ultimate frame of reference. There are no agents interacting in a single field. There are just agents embedded in and acting in relation to other agents. Reality is agents all the way down (and all the way up). There is no meta-container, no set of all sets. There are only agents. To be sure, there are localized “fields” of action but these “fields” are themselves nothing but partially overlapping (and only partially commensurable) agents. Every “field” is local and every “field” is itself an agent (and/or composed of agents). There is no “global.”
The traditional notion is that the universe starts out whole and complete. The traditional problem is then how agency is possible. Note, especially, that, to the degree that agency does show up in this kind of world, it shows up only as sin – as something that breaks and kills the integrity of world such that the world needs to be saved.
Mormons don’t have to start with this assumption of an original unity or meta-contextual totality. What if we tried out the alternate scenario? Let’s begin instead with the assumption of a multitude of only partially compatible agencies that are not embedded in a single, prefabricated whole. Let’s assume that unity is not pre-given and then lost, but only painstakingly (and only ever partially) made by way of agency. Let’s assume that it may well be our job to try to put the universe together, but let’s not assume that it is our job to put it back together.
In this scenario, we may be able to not only make room for the existence of agency, but for its goodness as well.