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.