Free Agency in the Bathtub

This is Kathleen from Dialogue. A young woman teaching in Relief Society mentioned that sometimes when she is trying to get her reluctant twin sons into the bath tub she distracts them by offering them a choice: “Would you like to play with? The red duck or the blue duck? The frogman or the bathtub chalk?” She pointed out that these are really false choices, because the boys have no choice about the issue at hand: the bath. Similarly she offers them choices about what clothes to wear when there is really no choice about getting dressed. She said what she is doing is like Satan’s plan. I suppose it is, if you think Satan’s plan is to make us think we have choices when we don’t, as opposed to offering no choices, period. I think her analogy is more like predestination, which would say everything we think we are choosing to do will have no final effect on where we will end up.

And I think it is also like that favorite Mormon argument that the foreknowledge of God about what we will do does not affect our free agency. That argument is usually phrased something like this: “God knows us so well he knows what we are going to do, but that doesn’t prevent our choosing. I know if I give my keys to my one-year-old he will drop them down the heater vent, but my knowing this doesn’t affect his agency to do that.” I would argue that his one-year-old could surprise him and not drop the keys down the heater vent, and the parent doesn’t really know when that surprise will come. I would like to think we can surprise God.

Among Mormons, questions about the foreknowledge of God and free agency are usually argued by example and analogy. One of the latest I have read is R. Dennis Potter’s Article in Dialogue, “What Does God Write in His Franklin Planner? The Paradoxes of Providence, Prophecy, and Petitionary Prayer” (37, No. 3 [Fall 2004] 49-64). You can reach this article through the Dialogue website. His analogy is a Franklin planner, and because I am predisposed to favor his arguments for what I consider true free will, I consider it a good one. It seems to me that this question is another one where people make up their minds in advance based on what seems comfortable for them, and go seeking arguments and substantiation later. The debates do go on, but I don’t think anyone ever changes his mind. And of course, there is no answer to the question on this side of the veil.

More and more you hear people making reference to something being “in their genes.” Not just athletic ability, or blue eyes, but things like the drive to write, mental stability, temperament, optimism, susceptibility to addiction, even spirituality, and, in the opinion of some, sexual preference. Genes are our true predestination. Our genetic make-up is not subject to our will. Mormons use the jargon along with everyone else but I don’t think they have thought through the consequences. About what things do we really have a choice?

I first heard this William James quotation from Eugene England, and I prefer to think of the world in this way. The quotation comes from a series of lectures on pragmatism that James presented in 1906; the lectures subsequently became a book. He asked his audience to suppose that the “world’s author” had said this to them before the creation. “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ . . . I offer you then chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure with real danger, yet it may win through. . . Will you trust yourself and the other agents enough to face the risk?” It’s a world where there is interplay between will (choice) and uncertified possibility, between courage and tragic contingencies. A world of real free agency.

I think the free agency of man and the foreknowledge of God can be harmonized this way. I use an analogy of course. At the Pacific Science Center in Seattle there used to be an exhibit where lots of white balls were released all at the same time at the top of a grid. The balls bounced their ways to the bottom and when all the balls were at rest, they formed a bell shaped curve. Every single time. Each ball, as it hit one of the bars in the grid, could go either left or right and there was no predicting in advance which way it would go, but the final pattern was always the same. In the same way, God could predict by the law of averages what the trajectory of the world would be and prophesy based on that (“ripening in iniquity”, “field white and ready to harvest”, etc.), but He can’t predict exactly how each of the players in the world will act at each juncture of choice.

I like to believe I have choice about whether to bathe or not. And not just a choice about the toys.


  1. Kristine says:

    The false choices don’t work for very long. There’s nothing like hearing your three-year-old say “Mom, you have a choice: you can buy me the blue Lego guy or the green one,” to remind you that your children are eternal intelligences, to be governed by persuasion and longsuffering rather than manipulation!

  2. Kathleen, thanks for the great post. The extent of choice is a real pickle for me, but I love your analogies.

  3. KathleenP, I like your interesting example to introduce a different way of looking at the age-old question of agency. I agree that many “people make up their minds in advance based on what seems comfortable for them, and go seeking arguments and substantiation later.” But I think many try to see where their understanding of the Scriptures takes them, and then work out what that means to them personally. Sometimes that means they feel they have an answer that admits both complete foreknowledge and completely free agency, sometimes that means they pick one or the other as primary, and reason on from there. There are also many people who don’t really care about the fore-knowledge/agency conundrum–either because they don’t think the answer will affect how they live their lives, or because they aren’t interested in philosophical questions in general.
    That leaves us bloggers with the seemingly endless temptation to go round and round the same points, but preferably with a new twist. We may not change anyone’s mind, but we can certainly have fun trying!

  4. Since we’ve had this discussion on the bloggernacle before, I am simply repeating myself. The God I believe in is all knowing. He knows what I chose yesterday. He knows what I will choose tomorrow. In both instances him knowing does not prevent my free will.
    If he didn’t know, I couldn’t really put my trust in him the way I need to.

  5. Razorfish says:

    Excellent thought provoking post. Thank you.

    I like the analogy of the bell curve and the almost invisible hand and mathematical precision that consistently distributes the balls in a similiar pattern. Imagining the balls as individual human souls and independent free agents, we often can’t influence the outcome of the pattern and the reality of the distribution, but we at least can choose to pick individually where we want to lie in this distribution. In this way the “trajectory of the world” may be set, but our personal path will be uniquely controllable and determinable. Curiously very few individuals (Enoch a la City of Enoch for example) have been able to disturb or alter the course of this apparently pre-determined trajectory. Maybe because THIS IS the exception to the rule, that is one reason why we celebrate these examples so much in the scriptures — that is although improbable and unlikely, the individual can change the macro-course of history, and not simply the personal sphere of one’s own orbit and spiritual trajectory.

    I like stealing some ideas from “String theory” in that perhaps there are multiple (maybe 300+ ) dimensions of parallel universes pancaked on top of each other where space and time can be sliced and viewed. These hypothetical universes could reflect the modeling of decisions and choices and ultimately the outcomes from the cumulative calculus of independent sovereign agents exercising free will.

    Maybe this idea could give incite into God’s declaration that time is not linear, but that he sees the past, present, and future as one eternal now. His eyes could delve into these parallel universes and show how the “dominos of our life” could potentially fall and upon what caveots and qualifications. Isn’t this effectively what a patriarchal blessing is, or prophecy itself, on a macro world-wide level.

    Perhaps the distilled essence of your question is this – Does God already know if I will be saved? Yes he can model the outcomes and mathematically know what percent of his children will pick what path (the bell curve), and he can see my own potential outcomes, but does he know which of these potential outcomes I will not only most likely choose, but ultimately which specific path I will choose?

    He may not be surprised by my decisions, as he knows with perfect precision what those outcomes produce, but I stick resolutely firm in the conviction that only myself as a sovereign agent can decide (choose) what I will do in the present. To think otherwise would deny my fundamental and intrinsic right of free agency. Which if this premise is invalid or untrue, then I want a refund (from the Plan of Salvation).

  6. I love the bathtub analogy. (Tangentially, it’s such an apt description of Martin Luther’s understanding of free choice that I want to use it when I take exams on him.) Like you, I’d like to think that we can surprise God.

    The example of the ball exhibit is thought-provoking. I find myself resisting it, though, because it still assumes more determinism than I’m comfortable with, even if not at the level of the individual person. (I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which the discipline of “psychohistory” reveals the laws for predicting the behavior of humanity as a whole.)

    I’m rather drawn to the open theists who argue that the future doesn’t exist to be known, but that God knows all posssibilities and how to respond to all possibilities, and can thus be assured of bringing about his will. (Which at least for me addresses the concern raised by JKS about how we can place our trust in him.) I find the idea powerful that God is really risking something with this whole earth life thing, that he can’t guarantee that a set number of us will make it back. I don’t quite know how to reconcile that with prophecy regarding specific individuals, though.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    You are exactly right Kathleen. Don’t let the compatibilists get you down.

  8. Seth R. says:

    I don’t know.

    I can look down from the fifth story of a building and see a guy walking out into a street between two parked cars looking over his shoulder at his friend with a loaded semi bearing down on him at 40 mph.

    I know what’s going to happen. But that doesn’t mean I took away his agency to cross and get flattened by the mere act of knowing the result.

    Knowing the result doesn’t take away agency. I don’t see how the bathtub analogy matches up with predestination at all.

    But I do agree with you that the argument that we are helpless before our genes is deeply Satanic.

  9. Hm. I’m one that is not too sure how things really are. What I find problematic about the balls and bell curve (The seattle center rocks) is that it is all random. Statistics work because every action is going to be random. Now, I’ve heard arguments that choice is only mathematic randomness; however, their is no free will in that, no volition.

    I think we have to recognize that genetics and socialization play a huge part in our choices. No one can truely argue that a newborn has free will. If there is true libertarian free will, it is never fully realized in this life and we have to battle for every scrap of it we can, overcoming physiology and society to do it.

    I think the choice between the bath toys could be a real choice. Much like a heterosexual man might have the choice of which of two women he might ask on a date.

    I do think that Mormonism does require some amount of free will, but whether that occurs before or during this life is enigmatic.

  10. I don’t have any choice but to believe I have free will. It’s my destiny.

  11. Mark Butler says:

    Statistics has little or nothing to do with the metaphysics of randomness, rather it has everything to do with the metaphysics of ignorance.

  12. Mark Butler says:

    I should add that free will must be sui generis to be worth anything – metaphysical randomness is a horror frighful enough to make anyone run back into the welcome arms of hard determinism.

  13. Seth R. says:

    Just curious,

    Why exactly are we so bothered by the idea of destiny anyway.

    Ancient peoples used to find a lot of meaning in their lives by describing a major part of their identity as determined by fate.

    We desire autonomy. But, at the same time, we desire to be a part of something larger.

    True freedom is to be adrift and alone in the world. Our modern society seems to prefer the lonliness.

  14. Dan Ite says:

    The concept of agency is one that has intrigued me for some time and Kathleen’s analogies are convincing. For those who would like to explore the theological debate I would recommend John Saunders, The God Who Risks (InterVarsity Press: 1998); Hugh Pinnock, The Most Moved Mover (Baker Academic: 2001); and The Openness of God (InterVarsity Press: 1994) [by various authors]. Although I take issue with some of the conclusions, altogether these are a few of the best revisionist approaches to the subject of man’s free will from a religious perspective.

  15. KathleenP says:

    All your comments have been so interesting. There are people who hate this kind of speculative discussion (because there is no answer) and people who love it for the same reason.

    Razorfish-I have a feeble mind mathematically speaking and can only follow discussions of things like string theory at second or third hand, through description, but I agree the “answer” may lie in what “time” is or the “nature of the universe” is.

    Seth R.–Suppose the person on top of the building watching events in the street is God, and suppose the person about to be hit had prayed that morning that he would be safe. This month in testimony meeting a man wondered if his prayer for safety during the day was the reason the guy who ran the red light missed the pray-er as he turned out of the post office. And what about the other car that was hit-if that driver had prayed ere he left his room that morning, would he have been hit? Part of Dennis Potter’s discussion in the article I refered to is about free will and petitionary prayer. And what about prophecy–the point of prophecy is to get us to chance our behavior, is it not?

    I guess I just like to feel like I am laying the track for my life, not just sitting in the handcart on a wild ride to who knows where.

  16. 14 — I think we value so strongly the importance of free agency in our theology that we are loathe to support the idea that there is anything which infringes on it, and fatalism is seen as infringing on agency.

    Personally, I see a lot of fatalism/destiny/design/whatever in Mormon theology. We are told that prophets throughout time have been shown the flow of the events of the world from beginning to end. That would mean that our behavior, at a general level, must be describable with a high degree of confidence.

    If there was a sign that the brother of Jared was shown my life in particular, and he knew that, at this moment I would be typing the word “codswallop” into this blog, that degree of determinance would make me somewhat nervous, because that would seem to preclude the idea that I had any choice but to do that.

    However, if we keep it at a general level, I have no problem with that level of determinance. Even if our behavior was random, there is order and repeatability in randomness — Chaos Theory shows that. And, if our behavior has less randomness because of something in our natures, we can have even more predictability in our behaviors at an aggregate level.

    Our ability to make choices is not denied, but the range of possible options we get to choose between is always going to be constrained by circumstance. I almost never get the choice between the filet mignon and the lobster, for instance. Someone else may not have the choice between Windows and Linux that I have every day. And some of those constraints on our available options comes from our own choices — none of us has the ability to choose to avoid the consequences of a choice we’ve already made.

  17. Razorfish says:

    The Intersection of Prophecy and Free Agency

    Does scriptural prophecy come at a price? In some form, is some aspect of free agency sacrificed on the altar of prophecy. Read the fascinating exchange in Helaman 9: 24 -36. In this example, a prophet, seer and revelator predicts future events and actions and words of another individual down to remarkable specificity. For example, Seantum’s reactions when confronted with the truth are correctly and accurately predicted down to the most extraneous detail.

    If this event could have been so accurately described before it happened, wasn’t Seantum in effect powerless to change his reaction to this event. Was his free agency compromised before this very event happened? (because his very actions were now wed to a prophetic utterance).

    Or in the case of the apostle Peter being told that he would 3 times deny the Christ before the sun would rise? Again, unintentionally Peter fulfilled this prophecy with exactness and precisely as foretold.

    The intersection of free agency and prophecy is also shown in the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report”. Where future crimes are prevented due to an oracle / medium that identifies events before they happen, so the police can intercept the perpetrators before they commit the crime. The twist in the movie comes when Tom Cruise (detective) finds out he will commit the next murder, and despite all his efforts to avoid this outcome, he is ultimately unable to change the course of events and the prophecy is fulfilled.

    I think we all feel grateful that we have modern day seers who can speak for the Lord, and scripture that can lay out future events for our comfort, benefit and understanding, but it seems like we have to be willing to sacrifice some degree of free agency as a cost of this. That is free agency appears to have to bend to the will of prophecy when the two intersect.

  18. Seth R. says:


    At any time, were Tom Cruise’s actions involuntary or not his own idea?

    Foreknowlege simply does not logically equate loss of agency.

  19. Razorfish says:


    No. That’s an interesting statement that forenowledge does not equate to loss of agency.

    What if someone told you that the next day you would be hit by a bus and die. The following day you made all the decisions and tried to do everything in your power to not get hit by the bus…but sure enough by the end of the day – you were hit by the bus and died.

    Would you still stand by the assertion that foreknowledge doesn’t equate to a lack of agency?

    Personally, it seems some aspect of your agency was impaired as you were unable to control a future event that negatively impacted you despite your best efforts to avoid it.

  20. Seth R. says:

    Yes I would still stand by it. Because the actions and choices were mine. It’s not God’s fault that I am who I am.

    What you are asking for isn’t really freedom of choice, it’s omnipotence. You don’t just want the ability to make affirmative choices in a universe of possibilities. You want the power to guarantee the result you want through your own efforts. That’s not choice, that’s changing the laws of space, time and morality.

    The fact that you don’t like the result doesn’t change the fact that you chose your own way.

  21. Mark Butler says:

    The dividing line between theories of compatibilist and libertarian free will is the ide of “could have been otherwise”.

    If one’s will is simply an epiphenomenon of internal and external causal factors, then one might claim responsibility for ones actions, but one definitely had no way of avoiding them – they could not have been otherwise.

    Whereas if one’s will entails sui generis “agent causal” interference with the natural course of events, then any reasonable past action *could* have been otherwise, and it is much easier to claim full moral responsibility.

    So on a compatibilist world view, why do we punish people for things they have no control over? Why hold people responsible for actions they might identify with but have absolutely no power to avert?

    Indeed why do the words “potential” and “power” mean anything at all, when there is only one possible future? Doesn’t that turn God himself into a a literally impotent spectator?

    What if he looked into the future and didn’t like what he saw? If he lifted a finger the future would change wouldn’t it? Or is God himself caught in the same hard causal nexus as the rest of us, making his character, his divinity, and his ultimate victory a metaphysical accident that he personally had nothing to do with, just a bystander watching in awe at the miraculous happenstance of some super-divine, a-temporal *IS*.

  22. Razorfish says:


    Interesting comments and thoughts.
    How far would you be willing to take this principle of foreknowledge and omnipotence?

    That is since God is omnipotent and omniscient and has complete foreknowledge, he is able to see the future as easily as we mortals experience “the present.” And so, God is able to see the end from the beginning.

    He sees with perfect clarity who will decide to be saved and exalted down to the last individual soul of the countless billions who will have come to earth. In fact he probably would have known this outcome already in the pre-Earth council.

    In this sense the outcome has been determined, the die has been cast, and the winners and losers have been chosen and identified. This sounds more like pre-destination than our LDS mantra “free to choose.”

    In fact, if someone could have tipped you off in the pre-Earth council about your fate imagine that. Judas Iscariot never had a chance before coming to earth. His treacherous act was foretold by Biblical prophecy hundreds of years before he ever came to earth in mortality. He never had a chance…but as you might explain it, he earned every bit of it through his own voluntary actions and decisions.

  23. Razorfish says:


    That’s some deep stuff. I’m still reaching for my dictionary to decipher your post.

    “Indeed why do the words “potential” and “power” mean anything at all, when there is only one possible future? Doesn’t that turn God himself into a a literally impotent spectator?”

    I agree with this. I doubt God is idly sitting by while the course of history moves forward. He is probably more involved in influencing the course of history and in the lives of individuals that we will ever know. That would suggest that there isn’t one possible view of the future that we are all locked into, but millions of different future outcomes that he is keenly aware of each one simulataneously. And so he lifts his finger to intervene in the daily discourse of humanity for our benefit.

  24. This is a subject that has been covered at great length at the Thang. I agree with Kathleen’s (and the Open Theists’, and others’) conclusions — free will is indeed incompatible with exhaustive foreknowledge. Blake Ostler has written what I believe is the most comprehensive work on this subject from a Mormon perspective (see his first book here).

    But as can be seen by Seth’s response, most Mormon’s are all for libertarian free will — its description is just what they have always called “free agency”. That is up until the point comes up that libertarian free will is incompatible with exhaustive foreknowledge. Then suddenly all these Mormon libertarians become compatibilists. As Mark pointed out though, the problem with exhaustive foreknowledge is that it requires the future to be fixed. In other words, if God knows that Seth will rob a 7-11 tomorrow (I’m borrowing an Ostler example here), Seth might think he is choosing to rob the 7-11 but the reality is that he had no real ability to choose otherwise. That is what a fixed future gives us. And the compatibilist variation of “free will” that Seth describes is much better described as “hypothetical free will”. Therefore, the problem with the oft repeated Talmage example of a parent knowing the child so well that future actions are predictable is that it does not describe exhaustive foreknowledge — it only describes an excellent predictor. Children surprise parents every day and because we have real free will we can surprise God too.

    Now Razorfish asks some excellent questions about prophecy. I have concluded that even though we have the capacity to choose freely most of us rarely actually use it. Most of the time we are causally determined. But sometimes we do tap our divine free will and agent causation occurs — independent of outside causal forces (they are calling this agent causal libertarianism these days). The point is that most of the time we are completely predictable because most of the time we are causally determined by outside forces like nature and nurture. But since we have free will we are not always externally determined and therefore we cannot be exhaustively predictable if the future is not predestined. (I should note that I think other factors like God’s ability to righteously persuade and influence help fill in other blanks regarding specific prophecies as well.)

  25. Seth R. says:

    Geoff I’m saying this whole dilemma is meaningless.

    I am also Seth R. and have no ability to be otherwise. I have no ability to be a bunny rabbit. I don’t have super-powers. Does this mean I’m not free?

    Just because God knows what we are, doesn’t mean that we don’t choose for ourselves. Freedom really boils down to one thing: stating our identity before God and the heavens. We declare to all, exactly what we are. That’s the only eternal question for us, and that’s all that freedom really is.

    But, I don’t think I can explain this any clearer than I already have. Let me throw another twist into this.

    There was a thread going about a lecture given by a Jewish professor (Weisel?) at Snow College recently. He suggested that God is wants his chilren to argue with him and He wants them to succeed in convincing them.

    The Jewish concept of God almost seems to contemplate a God who can change His mind. Basically, He is open to being proved wrong.

    This raises the specter of the “divine man” that mainline Christianity often accuses Mormonism of following. It seems to limit God. Are we OK with a limited God?

    Is God willing to be, or capable of being, surprised?

    Do we really believe in the kind of sterile perfection postulated by mailine Christian theologians and philosophers?

  26. Seth: I am also Seth R. and have no ability to be otherwise.

    Actually you do. You can’t change the past (it is indeed fixed) but you can change who you are. That is what free will means. That is why wickedness or repentance actually matter. If that were not true there would be no purpose for this mortal life.

    a Jewish professor (Weisel?) at Snow College recently… suggested that God wants his chilren to argue with him and He wants them to succeed in convincing them.

    I love it. I think he is exactly right. The scriptures are replete with stories of people twisting God’s arm (think Abraham and Sodom for instance). God doesn’t mind us to convincing him to change his mind just like I don’t mind my little children communicating with me and changing my mind. It is in those sorts of dialogues with God that we come to know him after all — and life eternal is to know God, not just know about him. If God is impassible (if his mind cannot be changed) then petitionary prayer is in vain. (And no I don’t buy that we change but he doesn’t line for a second).

    Are we OK with a limited God?

    It’s worse than that — we’re ok with a God who used to be a mortal! So yes, of course I can believe in a God who is capable and willing to be surprised.

  27. Eric Russell says:

    they are calling this agent causal libertarianism these days

    I’m a bit confused here, Geoff. Isn’t libertarianism agent causal by definition? Is there a type of libertarianism that isn’t agent causal?

  28. Eric,

    I believe the term is in reference to the causal determinism framework into which libertarianism is being harmonized. I think it is a response to the accusation that if choices are not determined by the “great causal chain” then they must simply be random.

  29. Seth R. says:

    The problem is Geoff,

    I don’t know many Mormons who subscribe to the idea of a “changeable” God.

    They almost unanimously seem to believe in the Catholic idea of a static and logically perfect God, just like any other good American Christian.

    Most Mormons I know don’t really recognize that the Mormon concept of God as an “exhalted Man” creates real conflicts and problems with their traditional Christian sensibilities.

  30. I agree Seth; that is a problem.


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