The Infinite. Part 11. Mormon Troubles with the Infinite.

Here is the previous part. All parts may be found here. Apologies to the huge cadre of readers who have been waiting on the edges of their collective seats for this for over a year. I just forgot to post it at the time–and then went off on other adventures. You’re welcome. To catch up with what’s here, I recommend subjecting yourself to the pain of following the link above (and similar links in it and its predecessors until you reach the “beginning”).For you, Brad.

One of the axioms of Mormonism is the existence of an infinite supply of matter. This follows from various statements like “this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) This process, which many Mormon thinkers have seen as not only the life of God but the life of every exalted person, implies that spirits will never run out. That is, there is either an infinite supply so that the process may continue, or there is an infinite supply of material from which spirits and their corresponding bodies may be “organized.” (Sorry, ex nihilo not allowed.)

Putting this aside, imagine the universe is infinite. Not really an unthinkable proposition, given that it appears to be “flat.” Baryonic matter comes in limited variety. That is, there are only finitely many types of available atoms, and thus only finitely many ways to create human creatures. This means that, given the epochs Mormonism postulates, there are infinitely many “yous” running around out there in the “cosmos.” Not only that, if time really is a discrete quantity, as some argue, then there are only finitely many ways to “be” you. In other words, no matter how you slice it, you fail to be unique, big time. Your whole life trajectory has been repeated infinitely many times (does “you” mean anything now?).

If you've seen one atheist, you've seen 'em all! Cosmos indeed.

If you’ve seen one atheist, you’ve seen ’em all! Cosmos indeed.

What the word cosmos means is open to discussion. If it means the product of the big bang, then an infinite universe is still quite possible, but if you prefer multiverse situations (a thing I’m not really comfortable with on a number of levels) then you must ask yourself how you see God as a material god. Does God consist of baryonic matter? No wonder there are infinitely many!

On another level, let’s think about spirits, or as B. H. Roberts might have said, “intelligences.” Joseph was big on spirits/intelligences/minds being eternal, that is, spirits have no beginning or end. True, this was junked in Utah for a long time in favor of process, but revived by Nels Nelson-B.H. Roberts and finally by the wonderful John Widtsoe.

Mormon eternity runs in both directions and presents interesting difficulties on both ends, especially if you subscribe to the retrenched theology of 1960s. By this I mean, material God + omnis (omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent). It’s the omniscient identifier that I want to focus on here. Omniscience generally includes foreknowledge. Aside from any freewill issues here (I think there are large ones) it requires a material God to have effectively instant, perhaps even simultaneous access to everything the future holds. Given that includes his own future and that he’s material, this entails an infinite subjective period containing infinitely many events. How is such a thing stored or accessed? If you really start thinking about this, it takes more than science fiction to dig out of the hole. But even if a material God doesn’t know the complete future, surely he must know what is going on in every corner of his domain (a possibly infinite place – see above). Baryonic matter storage will not do for too many reasons. Hence some other way is required. And, no fair postulating speed limit violations people!

The reverse direction is haunted by the same ghost, but multiplied by infinity if you will. There are infinitely many individuals who have been around for a (subjectively if you must) infinite period. Keep in mind we don’t subscribe to some sort of “bounded” infinity (in the familiar parlance of Mormonism the essentially meaningless “eternities”) like (for the knowing) the extended reals. There is no beginning point, a hard state of affairs for Mormons like Orson Pratt who wanted to buy the Cosmological Argument’s features, if not its conclusions.

How should these issues be dealt with if one wants to keep the essence of Joseph Smith and is willing to discard certain add-ons from the following generations? What would a bare-bones consistent Mormon Cosmology look like, given that we need essential features like Justice, Mercy, Preexistence, Atonement, Resurrection, a Powerful Loving God and yes, Joseph Smith’s revelations and revelatory claims – or most of them. Is a consistent, meaningful, system available? (Well, for the depressed (or maybe depraved) there’s always this (grin)).


  1. I think this just points to the likely scenario that God’s knowledge is finite. I believe God is omniscient in that He knows all truth, or all the finite base principles of truth. But it seems more likely to me that God’s intelligence, what I think of as knowledge of the application of truth, is probably ever increasing and at any given time can only be termed omniscient pertaining to some beginning and some end of both time and space at the very least expansive enough to act as God over the current sphere of existence of all of His creations.

  2. Thomas Parkin says:

    I agree with Steve. Omniscience is untenable. So are omnipresence and omnipotence, but omniscience is the one that has to go first. But, I also think it is impossible to keep forever progressing and aware intelligences, both on the front and back ends. (An ‘intelligence’ that has been infinitely expanding in understanding would have acquired infinite understanding, but we clearly begin this life at some middle point of understanding.) The acquisition of knowledge needs a beginning and an end. It may be that ‘spirit creation’ has to do with the bestowal of consciousness, or some other thing that grants a capacity to become. God, meaning Heavenly Father, may accumulate experience, but I don’t think that qualifies as knowledge, exactly. I actually follow BRM here, and only here, when he more or less asks ‘will He someday gain an understanding that undoes the plan of salvation?’ I think His course is, as it says, one eternal round. Not perpetually expansive in terms of being but always coming back to the start of the project. As one world passes away, etc. I think this is the meaning of the Eternal, as opposed to Time. It is circular, cyclical, but not meaning that events cease moving forward in a series of now(s). He may be added to, but not in the sense of expanding understanding.

    I also agree that we reject creation ex nihilo, as in the instantaneous creation of both all matter and all history. I’m not sure that this means that we have to do away with the idea of a spontaneous creation of matter and energy. I think science, at any given time, might help us speculate about these problems, but need not frame the problems.

  3. FWIW, physicists tend to favor an infinite universe, nowadays. (Sorta. E.g., see this web page of NASA’s, esp. its last few sentences…..)

  4. Oops, HERE’S the link:

    “We now know (as of 2013) that the universe is flat with only a 0.4% margin of error. This suggests that the Universe is infinite in extent; however, since the Universe has a finite age, we can only observe a finite volume of the Universe. All we can truly conclude is that the Universe is much larger than the volume we can directly observe.”

  5. @Thomas I agree that it makes sense that the process of acquiring knowledge has a beginning. I also agree that principles of truth are likely finite, and so there must be an end to learning about the makeup of the universe, plan of salvation, etc. But I don’t think that necessarily means acquiring knowledge has an end. If you include knowledge of historical, present, or future events as knowledge, and we accept that time/events are infinite both backwards and forwards, then it seems that you could always continue to learn about something that took place, is taking place, or will take place.

    If God does not have an infinite knowledge, then it seems there will always be events He does not know about and could and probably will continue to learn about even if these events are based on finite principles of truth and/or a plan that is an eternal round.

  6. Then THIS NASA web page says, “To this point, the only assumption we have made about the universe is that its matter is distributed homogeneously and isotropically on large scales.” – which would predict for there being infinite matter w/i an infinite universe, as well.

  7. WVS, one only needs a finite basis to span an infinite vector space (in many cases), so couldn’t we say that we ourselves possess an infinity of knowledge by simply thoroughly understanding vector operations such as linear combinations? e.g., I understand 1 and n + 1, so can’t we say I have a knowledge of the positive integers?

  8. Um. Brian, I see what you are driving at, but my guess is this wouldn’t be satisfying to the large segment of Mormonism who believe God knows their every thought, act and word (and everyone else’s too).

  9. Thomas, I think one can argue that knowledge may gained in an asymptotic way. Then there is no need from shy away from the idea that we have infinite pasts. Accountability may be sacrificed by going the route you suggest.

  10. @WVS I;m interested, do you mean that there is an argument for having consciousness and learning over an infinite past? If so, can you explain a little more how that would work?

  11. These issues are where me and Mormonism come to an impasse. I am just surprised that we can so easily throw out the omni-attributes of God in order to preserve the “infinity of matter and/or spirits” concept without qualification. A non-omni-God (NOG*) presents plenty of problems and this post only scratched the surface.

    For instance, on NOG, reality is ultimately inexplicable. We live in a sea of infinite intelligence from eternity to eternity. These intelligences “progress” or don’t “progress” (against what standard – I am not sure). Why this type of reality and not some other? There is no answer to that. It exists as a brute fact. Certainly it could have been something else – or maybe not (maybe there’s some argument that reality simply had to be this way and couldn’t have been any other way).

    On NOG, Hume’s is-ought problem seems like it just gets worse. If God doesn’t know all facts and isn’t even aware of all reality, then why trust his opinion on how to progress? Because he has progressed? How do we know that he even HAS progressed – because he shows us magic tricks? Because he makes us feel good? Because he attached some kind of spirit matter to us and created a material world for us? How do we know he is not an evil demiurge that is only toying with us – or some kind of child God who wanted pets? Or an “evil God” that actually created this world so we can suffer (like Stephen Law’s “Evil God” challenge). Even if we establish that God is good and powerful enough to trust, why OUGHT we to follow God on this scheme? How do we overcome the values-facts distinction (God knows some facts but not all, but why ought we to do what God says just because he knows facts)? On NOG, morality is ultimately subjective to the max – why not define our personal “morality” as something that makes us digress, not progress? Why adopt God’s morality over one that I make up?

    On NOG, what right does God have to inflict punishment on us, cast us to outer darkness, command prophets like Joshua or Nephi to kill us for him, etc.? If he is ultimately a step-father who is not responsible for our bare existence – who “adopted” us or scooped us out of the quantum foam and decided to help us achieve what he has, why is he now responsible for our progression or punishment? Because he appointed himself to be so?

    On NOG, God has revealed to Joseph Smith that matter and spirits are infinite. But how could God possibly know this? He does not know all the facts of existence. On what basis could God honestly tell Joseph that reality is infinite if God himself can’t access all of it? God could only know that reality is infinite on some kind of faith.

    How does this infinite number of past events overcome the 2nd Law and not entropy itself out of existence? How does this overcome the many objections philosophers have presented as reasons why we should think actual infinities cannot be reached by a process of successive addition? I suppose we could just fall back on a fideist view of Joseph Smith and just say “Because Joseph said so, and those are the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” But that’s not very satisfying.

    Now I am very willing to admit I am dumb at philosophy, and it’s very possible that all my objections are puerile and easily refuted. Or perhaps I am just not aware of all the strains of Mormon thought that envision all these variables in different quantities. But in my mind, the troubles of Mormon cosmology keep me up at night. As a child I reflected on the seeming paradoxes of Mormon thought – infinities, infinite Gods, infinite pasts, material Gods, etc. – and I assumed that they were just mysteries and paradoxes of God that I couldn’t possibly understand with my finite brain (but God can understand them with HIS finite brain apparently). But the more I read and think about it, the more I wonder what the difference is between “unknowable mystery that makes my brain hurt” and “stupor of thought because this can’t possibly be right.” Hopefully the rest of this series can ease the conflict a bit.

    *no, not the Ferengi.

  12. (oh and the other thing – what does it mean exactly for there to be another “me” out there in the cosmos? if I have no access to this being’s thoughts, memories, will, etc. then why is it useful to name this other being “me”?)

  13. A finite God does present interesting questions. Of course an omni-god has lots of problems too, and many trees have been felled to make the paper to explain them. Given that the process continues I think success is elusive.

  14. It seems to me that there is a way around part of the difficulty of ‘omniscience’ and it lies in distinuished the merely complicated (if we had all knowledge we could know what was going to happen) from the ‘complex’ (which because of the self-organizing properties of sufficiently complex systems and the appearance of ’emergent properties’ in those systems cannot not be completely known even with full knowledge of the prior conditions: credit to Isabelle Stengers). In addition, consider the fact that we have a ‘proof’ that events in a closed system which cannot be predicted can nonetheless occur. To say that God, or any other First Cause, knows all that can be known can still therefore allow for a certain lack of knowledge that things that cannot be predicted will nonetheless occur..

  15. “I;m interested, do you mean that there is an argument for having consciousness and learning over an infinite past? If so, can you explain a little more how that would work?”

    Having an infinite past of continual learning does not imply having acquired infinite knowledge. Suppose you have some finite knowledge right now (call it at time zero), and you gain knowledge exponentially in time. Say, for example, your knowledge doubles every 100 years. Extrapolating backwards in time, you had zero knowledge at time equal to negative infinity, have already been learning for an infinite amount of time, and will only gain infinite knowledge in the infinite future.

  16. That makes sense Aaron. Although, doesn’t that require the ability to obtain knowledge in infinitesimal-sized increments? It wouldn’t be surprising to me if knowledge came in its smallest increments as quantum packets. If this were the case, would it break down your model?

  17. Syphax, that’s a fantastic set of questions. In the absence of real answers, here are a couple thought:

    “If God doesn’t know all facts and isn’t even aware of all reality, then why trust his opinion on how to progress?” There are people on this earth who have far more experience than me, who have demonstrated paths I would like to follow, and whose opinions I have learned to trust. They are not omni-anything, but I recognize that they’re way ahead of me. So I’m OK extrapolating that to a choice to follow God, whether his experience (and my past society with him) is literally infinite, or just effectively so in comparison to mine.

    “How do we know he is not an evil demiurge that is only toying with us – or some kind of child God who wanted pets? Or an “evil God” that actually created this world so we can suffer (like Stephen Law’s “Evil God” challenge). Even if we establish that God is good and powerful enough to trust, why OUGHT we to follow God on this scheme?” I don’t think there’s any way to get around the principle of faith, leading to choice to follow (as oppose to an “ought to”). And as long as one or both parties possess finite experience and knowledge, choice based on faith have to continue.

    “How does this infinite number of past events overcome the 2nd Law and not entropy itself out of existence?”
    The 2nd law applies to a closed system. If there really is infinite space and matter than there is in principle always something out there to soak up more disorder at the expense of our order.

  18. Steve, it depends on whether you require constant increase rather than increase by steps. That said, it’s even possible that we amnesiacs already possess some sort of infinite knowledge. Knowledge may be seen as a branching process for example.

  19. Jack, B. H. Roberts would love you.

  20. Steve – yes, I suppose if you have to go and quantize knowledge, then you inevitably run into trouble at finite negative time…

  21. I think that a lot of these theological terms could be interpreted differently through the lens of the simulation argument/simulation hypothesis ( For example, do we have “infinite intelligences” because there is matter-intelligence or do we have the ability to simulate as many as we need through an intelligence-generating computational function?

  22. Thanks, N. – this just keeps getting better and better.

    If “as many as we need” is finite, then we have one fewer infinity to explain. If, on the other hand, it is infinite, then don’t all the same problems remain (storage via quantized matter, lack of uniqueness, etc)?

  23. It is worth noting, that the exact argument that we can only perfect trust God because of his Omniscience is in the Lectures on Faith, as one of the important things we need for firm foundation for our faith in God.

  24. I mistakenly thought this was a series on Mormon problems with the infinitive. “We thank thee for the opportunity…to come here today…and to be here…and to worship thee…”

  25. BCC strikes many targets with a single arrow.

  26. “I mistakenly thought this was a series on Mormon problems with the infinitive. “We thank thee for the opportunity…to come here today…and to be here…and to worship thee…””

    Awesome. Some theories claim that there’s always more free space available for topical expansion. Why not make it Mormon grammar in general? I nominate the verb “to proselyte”.

  27. Aaron #17: Point taken about the 2nd Law. As far as your first and second points, there might be an “absurd Kierkegaardian leap” there that I might not be fully comfortable with. We have to trust that we are not being deceived, trust that our faculties are reliable enough to discern who is progressed and who is not, and still the sticky problem of not having any metric whereby we can measure progression, which is not directly observable but through its fruits. Given that it’s (apparently) so easy to be deceived that a large fraction of Earth’s inhabitants through history have been “near to God with their lips but their hearts are far from him” it makes me doubt my ability to discern truth as well.

  28. Yes, Syphax, I don’t see how we can ever get around the need to either choose to exercise some degree of trust in something (including, implicitly, our own judgment), or else commit to an existence of inactivity. And we could get it wrong. Fortunately for me, though I see the logical limitations of putting trust in a being about whom I have limited knowledge (and that based on faith), and whose “goodness” I cannot independently measure, I do not in a practical sense agonize over the “Evil God” possibility. The discussion is engaging, but I don’t pause in panic before helping the old lady across the street to think, “Wait, what if His admonition that it’s good to help others was a malicious trick!”

  29. The thing is, though, classical theist conceptions of God (like Thomism) completely solve those issues by showing how God grounds reality, and that morality is objectively built in to the natures of people. Since evil is a privation of good on that view, there is absolutely no possibility whatever that God is evil or malicious. So I think perhaps there can be a pragmatic argument for doing “good” (whatever we think that is) on the Mormon view of God, you show an example where your own morality trumps what you may or may not think about God’s commands. So my argument still stands that it is hard to see how morality is grounded on Mormonism in anything other than what we want it to be – and therefore no reason why we couldn’t decide that we think it is good for our progression to be damned. Other than the sheer brute force of God threatening us if we don’t adopt his sense of morality.

    So that’s an argument from consequences ultimately – I realize that just because I’m uncomfortable with that view of the world doesn’t mean it’s false. So there’s that. But all things being equal, if Mormonism’s theology completely overturns classical theism without solving any more problems (and raising yet others), it is hard to see the “Mormon revolution/Restoration” as so much better than sticking with traditional Christianity – which has thousands of years of strong arguments on its side. It seems like the tie should go to the home team.

  30. The discussion has largely centered on the omniscience of God. I was surprised that nobody attempted to introduce a definition of omniscience. That would be fundamental to arriving at any sort of conclusion. I can think of at least 2 separate and mutually exclusive ways to define omniscience.

    If we go with the idea that Omniscience means that God knows everything there is to know from beginning to end (this is one of the pillars of Calvinism) then I would have to agree with some of the comments here that the system is a bit unworkable. There can be, by definition, no increase in knowledge. God can’t know more today than he did yesterday. Now a good Mormon would point out that God’s increase would be in his posterity, not in his accumulation of knowledge but this definition of omniscience precludes the idea of God ever having known less than he does today; ever having been exalted (to be exalted one must, at some point, have been less than exalted).

    I prefer a different understanding of the omniscience of God. Rather than God knowing exactly what choice I will make in a given situation, I prefer the idea that God knows every possible choice that I could make and who can foresee every possible consequential thread. This leaves my free agency intact. It also helps me to understand how I can get seemingly contradictory answers to prayers. For example, I pray and ask “should I accept this job offer I got today?” and I get a Yes. Tomorrow I get a second job offer and ask “should I take that one?” and I get a Yes. Quite possibly God is fine with either one (though probably not so fine with me wanting to be directed in every detail).

    We know that God is omniscient because it’s written in the scriptures. How that works and which (if either) of my definitions are correct is not written in the scriptures. From this I understand that God felt it important that we understand that he is, but not so important for us to be instructed about how so I try to understand why God felt to tell us of his omniscience. I assume it’s so that we could trust him. He makes amazing claims (“I created the heavens and the earth”) and wild promises (“peace in this world and eternal life”) and wants us to know that he has the power to fulfill those.

    This discussion of “How Eternity Works” is fun to follow and I commend you. I would suggest that you start with the premise that “Eternity Works” and then explore the “How”.

  31. I don’t know Thomism and many other -ism’s that I will have to look up later. But I’m going to go ahead and blurt stuff out, despite the risk of completely missing the mark, for which I apologize in advance.

    Perhaps Mormon theology would substitute submission to God based on trust that He must know and want what’s best for us because he is omni-stuff, with emulation based on a desire to become more like Him, whatever that is. And, in either case, something about love, gratitude, blah blah blah… Of course we have to decide that we have enough data to want that. If we think something else is better for our progression, then we are indeed free to pursue that instead. And who knows that we won’t get to whatever that is, and that we won’t be satisfied – I don’t remember reading anything about weeping and wailing in the many mansions. I also don’t see those outcomes necessarily as implementation of coercive threats, but instead as God saying “You get to follow the path you desire to follow. I’m strongly encouraging this one because it’s worked well for me and I want the same for my children, but you get to Choose Your Own Adventure”. Who knows, maybe there’s no limit to the number of times you can change your mind, back up a few pages, and take a different turn. Even a countably infinite number of years is a long time… This idea of following after one who is not (or at least has not always been) static has an appeal that, to me, is easier to relate to than the idea of forever singing songs to a supreme being that will always be situated somewhere on the other side of an infinite chasm.

  32. @ Manuela. In my first comment I tried to give my definition/understanding of omniscience, but maybe I did that poorly. To me I imagine that all truth is composed of a finite number of base principles, something like spiritual atoms. Knowing/having all these base truths allows one to learn about and completely understand complex truths that are necessarily composed of these basic principles. Thus one definition of omniscience is that God knows/has all the basic principles of truth that allows Him to comprehend any complex truth in the infinite universe (or multiverse). But I think it also goes further, I think God’s omniscience also includes knowing all complex truths within an ever growing closed system. He knows everything that happened back to some beginning, and everything that will happen to some end point within some subset of space, and that omniscience within a closed system continues to grow in all directions of spacetime. I think this practical omniscience is really all that is necessary to have the type of faith in God we want/need.

    I do agree that God has the ability to see different outcomes for different choices, but I disagree with the idea that God cannot know the choices that will in fact be made, or that this would somehow interfere with agency. Or referring back to the OP, I do not think there are freewill issues with foreknowledge. Whether God knows something or not does not change what is. When it comes down to it, I don’t think people have an issue with God’s foreknowledge per se, but the fact that God can have that type of knowledge, which insinuates that choice is causally determined and therefore can be pre-known. But if not causally determined, are we saying agency is based on a principle of randomness? What a strange idea that we are or can be accountable for something completely random. Agency explains causality, rather than causality taking away agency. Just because I will make one choice, doesn’t mean I couldn’t have made another, it’s just I and what makes me me, did not want the other choices as much. And just because someone can know what makes me me, doesn’t mean I was necessarily prevented or forced by something outside of myself from making a different choice. “I” was the variable factor that determined what choice was made, and therefore am responsible for that choice. And thus accountability is preserved. God foreknowing these things does not change the situation.

    At least, that’s how I view these things. If there are holes in my logic, I wouldn’t mind hearing about them.

  33. Steve (post 32), you have given a fairly good outline of the Calvinist view. Though I disagree with you, many others do not. You find yourself in good company.

  34. @32: Accdg to Gödel’s incompleteness theoremsödel#The_Incompleteness_Theorem , would a supposition such an assemblage of “basic principles” is finite render its whole theoretical structure ultimately to (logically) fail?…

  35. @EAJ – only if the basic principles were complex enough to contain arithmetic, and arithmetic is seriously frowned upon in the ‘naccle. ;)

  36. Manuela #33. I hope I am in good company, but after a cursory review of Calvinism I don’t think it can be with them. Relevant to this conversation I take issue with predestination, unconditional election, and reprobation among other things. While I do view the universe as causally determined, I do not believe in any way that God ordained everything that happens to happen, and surely not evil! That would mean to me that God is responsible for all things, and I cannot accept such an idea. For me foreknowledge is very removed from predestination. While God may foreknow all things that will take place in this sphere of our existence, I’m not comfortable with most things or possibly anything being predestined by God to happen. I am more comfortable with the idea of foreordination that may or may not come to pass dependent on the agency of individuals. I do not believe God can exercise His will to come to pass outside of natural law. Therefore, while the universe can be causally explained, many of the causes are rooted in natural law which includes the agency of man. I believe people can do something about their destiny, they do have freewill, and their choices are at least in part responsible for what causes the future to be what it will be–all of which beliefs to my understanding are diametrically opposed to the Calvinist view.

    #34, 35. Love math, but not a mathematician, so this was a bit over my head–thanks for the insight!

  37. Forgive me if I’m covering ground that has already been covered.

    Given the premise that “eternity runs in both directions”, which I take to mean that time goes infinitely into the past as well as the future, it seems to me that there has to be some being that now possesses all knowledge. The reason being that he has had infinite time in which to accumulate it. However much time it takes to accumulate all knowledge, he has had that much time and more.

    It seems the only way this wouldn’t follow, is if you held as a further premise that there is a limit to how much knowledge an intelligent being can accumulate, which is short of all knowledge that exists. Which would mean that at some point, we will have learned all we can learn, even though there is more out there that we haven’t learned yet. Which in turn implies that there is some knowledge which is simply unknowable by any being; but that seems like a contradiction to me.

    Another way it wouldn’t follow, is if you held that, although eternity goes back infinitely into the past, intelligent beings came into existence a finite time ago. That of course would beg for an explanation of what brought them into existence.

  38. Ron Hellings says:

    There are two important points here that no one seems to be aware of.

    1. There can be no free agency unless the universe is deterministic. This is not a religious statement, nor does it have anything directly to do with God’s knowledge or even if there is a God or not. It’s just logic. By the way, if the universe is deterministic, it is possible for God or someone to have perfect foreknowledge of it.

    2. In Physics, there is no absolute prohibition of things traveling faster than light. Only matter and fields that couple to the metric have this limitation. Spirit or other kinds of matter could couple to a different tensor and their fundamental speed limit could be very different, possibly much faster.

  39. Ron. Nah. #1 is a bag of manure and #2 borders on the ridiculous.

  40. Ron Hellings says:

    I don’t think you should comment in philosophical discussions any more. You don’t seem very smart.

  41. @ Ron. No need for a personal attacks here. I agree with your #1 (I hinted at the idea in my March 8th comment), but I know there are smart people that disagree with that idea. I don’t understand your #2 well enough to comment.

  42. As TOTAL Steve I vaguely endorse that comment.

  43. “There can be no free agency unless the universe is deterministic.”

    So if I manage to create a true random number generator, and operate it just once, then forever after any apparent freedom to select your own breakfast cereal will be purely illusory. And it will be all my doing! Bwah hah hah hah (Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh…)!!

  44. That’s pretty funny Aaron, although joking aside I’m not convinced anything can be truly random–randomness may just appear that way due to a lack of full information. Maybe at a small scale randomness can exist, but if the outcomes are not deterministic in the long run or on a larger scale, it seems incompatible with God’s ability to foreknow and leaves open the possibility that His plans could be thwarted. The idea to me is detrimental to faith in God.

    Furthermore, if we went so far as to say that at the base level randomness is in part responsible for our choices, how can we then be accountable for such choices? Such a concept would render the ideas of morally praiseworthy and morally deplorable actions moot, since at the root level it was not totally the individual’s fault. In other words, an agent cannot be morally accountable for his/her actions if the causes are nondeterministic or random. So to preserve free agency, the universe must be deterministic enough that no random factor (from an overall perspective) can alter the course of one’s eternal destiny. Otherwise it would seem very unjust in the end to have eternal rewards or punishments dealt based on luck of the draw (i.e. looks like Lucifer woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and decided to rebel against God; what a shame, looks like he’ll have to suffer perdition for eternity now, glad I didn’t wake up that way).

    So from my perspective, yes, free agency is dependent on a deterministic universe – at least from a large scale perspective as it relates to human beings.

  45. Ron Hellings says:

    Thank you. Much better. Please excuse me. Your comments just didn’t communicate much and seemed only unsupported and not-well-thought-out opinion.

    I presented a Sunstone Symposium paper on the first statement (about determinism) many years ago, and General Relativity is my research area. So I know whereof I speak on the second.

    With regard to the first, there are only two possibilities: either the universe is deterministic or it isn’t. But not-deterministic means fundamentally random, and there is no agency in randomness. Only if the universe is deterministic can I determine my own decisions.

    With regard to the second, well… let’s just stick to the first for now.

  46. Did someone just say WVS doesn’t seem very smart? Wow. Dumb.

  47. Steve, there are so many questions wrapped up in this that I feel I have to first restate them, and then try to respond to a subset. There is no doubt some overlap, but I am reluctant to draw inferences across the whole set.
    Q1. Would the existence of any randomness in the universe imply an absence of any determinism? In other words, must me choose between a random universe and a deterministic one?
    Q2. Would randomness negate free will? Ron claims “there is no agency in randomness. Only if the universe is deterministic can I determine my own decisions.”
    Q3. Would determinism negate free will?
    Q4. Is the existence of randomness incompatible with divine foreknowledge and planned outcomes? As you put it, is randomness “incompatible with God’s ability to foreknow and leaves open the possibility that His plans could be thwarted”?
    Q5. Can macro-determinism emerge from micro-randomness? Might all apparent randomness be an illusion resulting from “lack of full information”?
    Q6. Is the process of making choices fundamentally random, and therefore accountability unjust? Does justice require that “no random factor (from an overall perspective) can alter the course of one’s eternal destiny”?

    1. Random processes and subsystems can in principle coexist in the same universe with deterministic processes, and the two can interact with one another. For example, the radioactive decay of a particle can be used to activate the dropping of a ball. Of course there are all sorts of questions about the extent to which the falling ball is itself deterministic (Shouldn’t its apparent determinism somehow arise from a very large system of quantum-mechanical objects and interactions, etc.?), but I see no reason why in principle there could be no such coexistence.
    2 and part of 6 with a nod to 5. Given a random system, I can in principle exercise free will to establish rules of interaction. For a system that generates pairs of random numbers, I can establish a rule of always selecting the larger of the two. This of course requires that I possess non-random free will coexisting in a universe with a random number generator. In any case, the charge to choose righteousness requires responding in a responsible way to seemingly random inputs. Whether or not those inputs are truly random or just apparently so doesn’t seem critical. Furthermore, I don’t think justice is thwarted if God says, “Ok, I’m going to put you down in this machine that will present you with a random series of vegetables and pies, and I want you to always go with the pie.” Perhaps most significantly, I’m more on the side of “We’re here to learn how to choose and love pie” as opposed to “We’re here to test whether or not we will pick pie, and then punish us if we don’t.”
    6. I’m starting to feel guilty about the length and also running out of easy questions, so I’ll just say that free will is something that I experience. I am presented with options, I experience a selection process, observe various consequences, feel joy, guilt, etc. I am aware of no experiment I can perform that could reveal my apparent free will to be an illusion. So I could never effectively remove feelings of responsibility by arguing that, at some unperceived level yet in some fundamental way, those choices are controlled by a roll of the dice. Nor could I offer a convincing (including to myself) defense that I should be left off the hook for my “willful” rebellion.

  48. Aaron, I think most of our thoughts on the subject are pretty compatible, maybe I missed where we may be in disagreement. My answers to your questions are: 1) No. 2) No and yes. No, if the randomness that exists does not factor into choice. Yes, inasmuch as a random factor determines a choice. 3) No. 4) Yes, except where 5a might exist. 5a) I think it’s possible. 5b) I think this is the most likely scenario if 5a is not true. 6) If choices are fundamentally random, then moral accountability cannot be preserved.

    I think my viewpoint is based on 2 principles. 1. In a macro-random universe, God’s purposes can be thwarted, and therefore such a universe is not compatible with a God we can fully trust. And 2. If a choice is fundamentally random, then there can be no moral accountability, and thus no true moral agency.

    Based on the above 2 principles, and my beliefs that 1) God is a God that can be fully trusted, and 2) Moral agency does exist — I conclude that 1) The universe is not macro-random, and 2) The choices that effect our eternal destiny/progression/glory are fundamentally deterministic, not random.

    Or stated in reverse, I don’t think a person who believes in a macro-random universe can rightly believe in a God that can be fully trusted; and I don’t think a person who believes that choice is fundamentally random can rightly believe that moral agency can truly exist, and therefore cannot rightly believe in the LDS explanation of plan of salvation.

  49. I too think that we are mostly in agreement – I might just be a bit more noncommittal. I am willing to allow a lot of randomness in the universe, but I agree that we have to draw a line at the basis for choice. Free will can only be exercised when choice is not fundamentally determined by randomness. If the process of making choices is fundamentally random, then moral accountability is unjust and cannot be preserved. I too reject this possibility.

    Regarding your second main principal, however, I think there are at least two ways that a macro-random universe could in principle exist without the possibility of thwarting God’s ultimate purposes. I’m thinking of that ultimate purpose as: All are free to exercise agency, and Lucifer cannot “ascend to the throne”. Either scenario might be problematic from the standpoint of perfectly-detailed foreknowledge, but I think that can be considered as a separate issue.

    The first scenario depends on a special topology for whatever space-time is embedded in, such that all possible paths lead to the same ultimate outcome. This would be like a ball starting off at the top of a hill, constrained to remain in contact with the ground, and given a random initial kick. There are an infinite number of paths that can be taken, with any one chosen at random, but all end with the ball at the bottom of the hill. Furthermore, subjecting the ball to an additional random series of sideways kicks on the way down will produce a randomly varying path, but the final outcome will remain unchanged. In the language of dynamic systems, all of phase space leads to the attractor at the bottom of the hill. Similarly, the universe could be subject to an infinite number of random macro-events as long as they are drawn from a probability distribution that cannot produce a winning Satan. God only has to know the topology and probability distribution to know the outcome. As an aside, this picture also reminds me of path integral or Feynman diagram approaches to quantum field theory, where an interaction between particles is described with a weighted sums over all possible paths between the specified initial and final states.

    The second scenario depends on God’s ability to react in course-correcting ways to macro-random events. This is sort of like those modern aircraft that are made super-maneuverable by designing them to be unstable. Like any aircraft in flight, they are continuously subjected to (for all intents and purposes) random perturbations from atmospheric turbulence, etc. Without computer control, they would promptly fall out of the sky. With that control, those random perturbations are unable to keep them from arriving at their destination. Back in terms of God’s purposes, it’s ok if an extinction-level asteroid is randomly deflected onto a collision course with this Earth we were told we get to keep, as long as He can react with a giant pool cue or whatever. Note that in both of these scenarios, the random kicks or perturbations are not our choices, since we agree those have to be preserved as non-random. And by extension that final, predetermined state is not our own individual eternal state, since that has to depend on how we exercise our agency. Unless you think that all who kept their first estate will ultimately find a path to redemption, which I cannot rule out.

  50. Good thoughts, it really made me think. It does seem like some level of macro-randomness could exist like you describe. Maybe something like the big bang that starts an infinite universe on its course may have some level of initial randomness to it. I could imagine thereafter the Gods counselling together to find and decide where starting life would be best suited to fulfill their plans. But at this point I lean towards believing in more causality and ability for a more perfect foreknowledge within the sphere of existence chosen for life, or that sphere which impacts us in any way. One of the reasons I shy away from macro-randomness having an effect here on earth is how I view the atonement. In my mental model, I imagine that Christ had the foreknowledge to suffer the consequences for the actual future sins that would take place on this earth, that he truly was able to witness and suffer in our individual circumstances that He might more fully be able to succor His people. This would mean not only would the choice have to be deterministic, but the situations/events leading up to the choice would have to be as well. So for me, macro-randomness having an effect in the here and now would break down that model. I admit though that my model of the atonement may be entirely off-base. I do think some levels of macro-randomness leading to overall determined outcomes as you describe them are definitely logically compatible with our knowledge of God and the plan of salvation, even if most don’t fit in my current and probably faulty mental model.

  51. Steve, you have indicated two sides of Christ’s suffering. Both are key, but I see them as having separate implications for this discussion.

    First, he suffered to pay the price for our sins. Like you, I have held mostly to the “standard” interpretation that he suffered for the specific, individual sins that each of us would eventually commit. Like you, I don’t see how this could be without detailed foreknowledge, and I don’t see how that level of foreknowledge could exists in a macro-random universe. That said, given that I have no fundamental understanding of how the atonement works (I don’t believe anyone does) I can’t rule out the possibility that the price could be paid in an “infinite, eternal” way without perfectly detailed foreknowledge and corresponding suffering for specific individual sins yet to be committed.

    Second, he suffered all pain, sickness, and sorrow so that he could feel perfect empathy and know how to succor his people. In this case, it seems enough to experience all types of human suffering, rather than all individual suffering. This is not how I’ve typically interpreted the mechanics of the atonement, but I don’t have any problem with it either.

    Always a little disappointing to end up with “Meh, I just don’t know. Could go either way.” But I guess that’s still where I’m at.

    In general, I do not find that such interpretations necessarily incompatible with scriptural references to infinity, perfection, “all-ness” and “omni-itude”. These are linguistic expressions of concepts that are very difficult, if not impossible for us to grasp, and they are not explicitly defined in scripture. On the very large scales that separate our current state from God’s, such language seems to me acceptable and appropriate in describing our relative separation, even if it is in fact finite. I think in particular of passages describing “worlds without number” (i.e. infinite) like unto the “sands of the sea” (actually finite but effectively infinite within the realm of everyday human experience). Innumerable unto man, but to God they are numbered.

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