“Choice and Accountability.” We hear the phrase frequently and if you are a veteran of the LDS Young Women’s program, you’ve probably heard it a lot. The two go together, since you can’t be accountable for a decision, unless you have true alternatives to choose from, and your choice is not completely determined by circumstance outside yourself. I’m compressing and there are fine points here, but that’s how most would see it I imagine.
In mathematics, the Axiom of Choice is best stated in formal terms, but it would take a while to get you up to speed on it, so let me be vague. It says: if you have any collection of sets, none of which are empty, it’s possible to pick one thing from each. Sounds innocent and obvious, right? One consequence is the Banach-Tarski theorem, (1924) or Banach-Tarski Paradox. This is a really odd thing but also really fun: A solid three dimensional sphere can be cut into a finite number a pieces in a judicious way and those pieces reassembled into two solid spheres identical to the first. Or: one sphere spawns two, each of the same volume as the original. So the 4th century Christian-philosophers were right! Ex nihilo creation?
The Banach-Tarski Paradox is not a logical paradox, but it gives one pause. The power to choose may have unforeseen consequences.
I think it is fair to say that in Mormonism, we believe in the power of responsible choice. Indeed, if you believe the stories, war was fought in Heaven over the issue of exercising that power. I think that if we drill down far enough, most Saints would agree that Mormonism requires that some form of free-will (FW) for human beings exists. What’s the potential for paradox here? Yeah. That old black magic of exhaustive foreknowledge (EF). But in this case it’s worse. Banach-Tarski only looks like a logical paradox, because of our modern physics-inspired views about conservation. When Augustine encountered the real paradox of FW vs. EF, he chose EF. Now lots of paper has been cut and fitted into lots of books to try and weasel here. But Augustine was a very smart guy, and I think he saw the right of it. Pelagians out, EF gets the win (not without some Augustinian angst of course). Assuming this is right for a moment, we should observe that modern Christianity owes its commitment to EF (such as it is) to Augustine.
There is a thread of EF that runs through Mormonism and I think we can say that we may owe some of this to Augustine, by way of the Puritans. Related to this is the question of agency. Granting agency is a big theme in Mormonism. But it seems unlikely that this term, used in this way, is equivalent to free will. As Truman Madsen said once, free will is the driver, agency is the car. Road blocks effect where the car may go, but not necessarily where the driver would go. A sort of brain-body thing.
Here’s the question: discursively, how committed are we to EF? Joseph Smith can be construed as being on the side of EF – “I believe that God foreknew every thing” but I think a little contextualization serves us well here. Smith was speaking only, I think, of certain outcomes in the Garden of Eden. Room to weasel there. But what about definite commitments to EF? Well you won’t find the hard definition in Mormon Discourse. But perhaps we can find something definite enough to talk about.
First, it’s clear that Brigham Young took a pretty hard stand against omniscience. As a practical matter he just found it hard to believe that there would not always be things to learn. Mormon deification plays into this and Young is using the same analogical reasoning that gave rise to the Heavenly Mother ideas: we shall never cease to learn, so neither does God.
We shall never cease to learn, unless we apostatize from the religion
of Jesus Christ. Then we shall cease to increase, and will continue to
decrease and decompose, until we return to our native element. Can you
understand that? It is a subject worthy the attention of the eminent
divines of Christendom, and they may search into it until they are tired,
and still know comparatively little about it, while I preach it to you in
a few words.
Young makes clear elsewhere that this decomposition is the fate of the sons of perdition and the devils of hell. But again, the important point is that he thinks we may never cease to learn, ergo, God never ceases to learn (his conclusion, not mine). BY is teaching this in a very definite fashion, counter to Orson Pratt.[Compare his of JD 4:126-7] Pratt subscribed to omniscience and he and Young went at it over the issue. So the score is 1-1. It’s safe to say that at the time of this discussion the rest of the Church authorities were on Young’s side, or at least silent about it.
Casual uses of “omniscient” probably should not count. But I think Ezra Taft Benson can be counted as being in favor of EF. See his talk 4 October 1987.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie was pretty much in favor of EF. You can find this any number of places, but take for instance his Mormon Doctrine. Just look up omniscience.
James E. Talmage, the Nautilus of the modern Mormon correlated doctrine fleet, played with omniscience a bit. For example, p. 77 of the first edition of his Articles of Faith. Current edition, p. 75. (Talmage did not believe in any sort of “backward” eternal existence of the human soul which may play into this.)
The atonement wrought by Jesus Christ is a necessary consequence of the transgression of Adam; and, as the infinite foreknowledge of God made clear to Him even before Adam was placed on earth
Keeping score is fun, but probably not very useful since what we really need to understand here is not whether this or that person believes in omniscience, the supercategory of EF, but how they reconcile it with FW. By the time you do the work to get down to that point, most people are just smiling and shrugging their shoulders. I mentioned (see ) that the escape trajectory from this paradox is to weaken either FW or EF. Let’s examine just two of these. First, limited foreknowledge. In this case, God predicts the future in fine detail but it is *possible* for surprise to happen as events unfold (but see the note on general relativity in ). Agents *may* modify the picture since choice cannot be predicted with logical certainty. The second alternative: one is frozen in choice sequences by one’s previous choices, not by an outside being (God). Self-determinism might fit in with Mormonism, even with Joseph Smith’s idea of uncreate selves. An infinite history of choices determines present choice and presumably God could know that history. Some kind of thing like this would be required to hold on to “Choice and Accountability.”
B. H. Roberts found his reconciliation with a God who is temporally omniscient. That is, at this moment, God knows everything that it is possible to know at this moment. Roberts eschewed EF. Dumping FW in favor of self-determnism probably matches Neal Maxwell’s position, but it is unclear if Maxwell believed in EF.
It is interesting that the tension we see between FW and EF is rather like that found in the current political discussions over national security and personal freedom. Want to be safe, or free. Some of both is what we will get, but how much of each?
I think that Mormons who subscribe to the limited foreknowledge idea are precisely those troubled by the negative effect EF has on “Choice and Accountability,” clearly a cardinal principle of Mormonism. What’s more important, EF, C and A, LFW? I’m not sure about LFW in all its glory, but I have all kinds of trouble with EF. So count me in the limited foreknowledge camp. I’m avoiding all the middle knowledge stuff, etc. feel free to bring it up if you want to. I’m quite comfortable giving up EF. For me it is balanced by personal eternity though I’m not necessarily a compatibilist possibly like Maxwell. I think that position is *incompatible* with C and A. And C and A rules in Mormonism. Your milage may vary.
 You may believe that some slight-of-hand is present here, but not so. Tarski felt the axiom of choice was too broad and would lead to paradoxical things. But the Banach-Tarski paradox is not one of them. This pleads for an answer to the question: can I take my regulation softball and cut it up and make two regulation softballs? Sure. But you will need a special saw. <grin>. The Axiom of Choice has a somewhat checkered history as implied by Tarski. In 1940, Godel showed that it is consistent with the rest of mathematics, in the sense that it does not introduce logical contradiction. (It’s also independent, but that’s another story.) Incidentally, near the end of the same decade, Gödel showed that the general relativity theory essentially entails no FW – but think, bald guy on Fringe.
 Keep in mind, that EF is a technical condition. Two ways have emerged to deal with the question of shoving accountability and foreknowledge together. Essentially they amount to weakening one or the other. Mormons are fundamentally committed, I think, to humans having free will in a strong form. Otherwise “present” accountability is hard to swallow. There is many an “unless” here, but in a practical way some sacrifice must be made to avoid paradox. (Dennis Potter has given a short “proof” of this.) There are all kinds of subtexts here, like the nature of time, God and man. As an aside, in my experience there are plenty of Mormons who buy into the old Puritan notion of Providence. But yet they want something like FW. You can’t go to Disneyworld and Disneyland at the same time folks. Are we talking Libertarian Free Will here? I expect that random decision-making has to exist as a *possibility* even if not in a given individual, usually.
 See Madsen, Timeless Questions – Gospel Insights. Lecture 4. Bookcraft, 1998.
 See his speech of Feb. 5, 1840.
 At this point we could bring up the Lectures on Faith. They are highly revered in some circles and pretty clearly lean to omniscience. In fact they press the issue as required to generate true faith. This is good old Protestant talk. But it is difficult to know if it means EF.
 I admit that most people would find the latter distasteful perhaps. There is some reason to believe that EF is not a very useful state of affairs, and for the pragmatist Mormon that could be significant. Prayer is what I’m thinking of here, an issue I don’t really address above, but one I think is important. Asking God how to proceed in some life decision becomes problematic in EF. If the future is malleable then petitionary prayer makes much more sense (but Providential interpretations of prayer abound in Mormon discourse).
 See his Mormon Doctrine of Deity. Compare Kent Robson, “Omnipotence, Omnipresence and Omniscience in Mormon Theology.” Sunstone 10/4 (1983): 21.