How does God make decisions?

June 20, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 12:55 am   Category: Theology

I’ve already gotten ahead of myself, because there is certainly someone out there who will dispute the idea that God makes decisions in the first place. If so, I am interested in that view. For my own part, I consider decision making to be an essential part of personhood, and I believe that God is a person.

If it turns out that I’m correct and God does make decisions, upon what does he base his decisions?

The most obvious answer would be his foreknowledge. If God knows the future (as most everyone supposes) then it only stands to reason that he would use this knowledge when making decisions. But what would this mean exactly?

Absolute Foreknowledge

If God’s foreknowledge is such that he knows of a certainty what will happen in the future, then his foreknowledge must include the facts of what he, himself, will do in the future. If this is the case it seems inescapable that God does not make decisions after all—he merely does what he has foreseen himself doing. This conclusion belongs to the free will vs. foreknowledge debate since it is essentially saying that even God does not have free will in the presence of absolute foreknowledge. I don’t want to get hung up on that debate other than to say that I see no way for absolute foreknowledge to be used in a decision making process (all decisions being foreknown).

Foreknowledge of Possible Futures

For the sake of argument, then, let’s suppose that God does have foreknowledge, but not the type of foreknowledge that prevents him from making decisions in the presence of genuine options—say, God has knowledge of all possible futures but does not know for sure which will become actual. This kind of foreknowledge seems at first glance to be much more helpful in decision making. After all, this would allow God to compare possible futures and make decisions based on which action would lead to the most preferable future. A couple of problems quickly surface, however. First, when we say that God “compares possible futures,” what does this assume about futures? Each possible future is presumably infinite, so what is it that God would be comparing? He can’t simply look to see which one “turns out” best because they never end, and thus, never “turn out.” To compare possible futures, then, God must be picking some point in time at which to compare, but why should one point in an infinite future be used to judge? Maybe future a) looks great ten years out, but really tanks compared to b) when compared at 20 years out. Any one point in the future seems inadequate/arbitrary, but we cannot simply go to the end to compare since futures don’t have ends. What to do?

A second problem arises if we come up with some way to solve the first problem. Suppose that there actually is some point in the future which God is justified in using to compare possible futures. Maybe judgment day, I don’t know. What is it God would be comparing? Well, something about how “good” each future was, whatever “good” would mean. Let’s suppose, for arguments sake, that a future’s “goodness” can be assessed (I am not at all convinced that this is the case). If so, isn’t it unavoidable that two gods would always arrive at the same conclusion about which future is the “best” future? Of all the things we might allow gods to disagree on, “goodness” does not seem like a likely one. But if that is the case, then we are left with the idea that God compares possible futures and always acts so as to bring about the “best” one. If this is what God does, then it would seem to follow that all gods would always act the same way in every situation. There could never be a god who would fail to bring about the “best” future, right? Well, as you may know, I have trouble accepting the idea that every person who is exalted becomes identical with every other exalted person, calculating “goodness” coefficients on possible futures and making decisions accordingly. I am sure it is only personal inadequacy which prevents me from accepting this idea, and I trust you’ll remind me of this.

Limited Foreknowledge and Petitionary Prayer

A very different idea is that the future is not completely known to God (because it is inchoate) and that he makes decisions very much like we make decisions, only with more wisdom and understanding, and with better intentions than we do. He tries to make decisions which will have good consequences, often with the short term consequences being more obvious than the long term ones. When you pray to ask God for help with something, or to be healed, or whatever, do you assume that God is only able to grant your petition if it happens to align with the best possible future for the universe? Personally, I do not. For one thing, I don’t think there is some “best” possible future which is known to God. This lack of one “best” future frees up God, so to speak, to interact with us in a genuine relationship in which he can respond to us as individuals and even change what he had planned to do based on our requests.

After a lot of prodding, God eventually allowed Joseph to send the 116 pages with Martin Harris. Some feel compelled to conclude that this means it was more important for Joseph to learn from the monumental screw up of losing the 116 pages than for God to stick to his previous answer that he shouldn’t send the 116 pages with Martin. After a lot of thought, I am not sure I interpret it that way. I am becoming comfortable with the idea that God’s initial answer really did represent the better thing for Joseph to do, even at the time when God finally relented. I believe God did what he did on that occasion because he was in a dynamic relationship with Joseph Smith and allowed him to learn a lesson at some expense to “the universe,” so to speak.

Of course, these musings of mine cover a lot of complicated ground which I am brushing over at high speed. Think of it as me leaving plenty of nuance for your comments to address. I’m interested in your thoughts on God’s decision making and/or reactions to my thoughts above. What do you think?

25 Comments »

  1. I am sure it is only personal inadequacy which prevents you from accepting this idea…

    Only kidding.

    The best part about this post is I would get ready to blast you on multiple points, then the next sentence would follow my stream of reasoning and shut down my arguments. I agree a single fixed future is absurd and can not exist in a space where agency exists. I agree that multiple futures are never ending. I agree that if God judged now based on some point in the future it would be judgment day.

    I believe that God does not control all aspects of the future with his choices alone, as while that would grant him agency, it would deny me my agency. Thus, even if God did have foreknowledge of every instant of the future between now and the judgment day, he would not choose to know exactly what my reaction to his actions would be, as he couldn’t know that without denying me ability to choose my own actions.

    I guess my point is, that if God had the ability, he would choose not to use it if he made his choices based on what I understand to be the “greatest good” according to scriptures.

    Further, I believe that while God does look for the greatest good of the whole, he is capable of looking for the greatest good of each individual as well.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 20, 2007 @ 7:22 am

  2. The way I try to understand God is from the point of view of a gamer (insert sigh here). No really.

    Take one of the great “god” games, Sim City. In this game, you (“god”) can pause, stop, fast forward time. With the game paused, you can then individually interact, and get to know each sim if you so choose. After all crises are handled, (or crises created for that matter) you can unpause the game. The Sims have no idea the game was just paused. All they know is that thier issue was handled.

    I see this as a way to explain how God answers prayers.

    This also is a way to explain a more esoteric concept of multiple “universes” each having thier own “God”, which, when we become exalted beings, we get our own “universes” to run.

    Consider a computer lab with many different computers (“Universes”). Each computer has an instance of “Sim City” running. The gamer is “god” of thier “universe”, but from the point of view of the “Sims”, there is but one God and one Universe.

    Comment by Michael Horn — June 20, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  3. Michael, my only concern with that point of view is that in Sim City all the disasters happen because I get bored with the ongoing neverending status quo of the game…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 20, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  4. Matt,

    I think your point in your second to last sentence of #1 is that the “greatest good” should include free will, and thus, God can be trusted to do whatever necessary to protect free will. Right? If so, I agree. One interesting thing to consider is that even the ability to know the future absolutely is probably incompatible with free will. The problem is that if God has the ability to know the future absolutely, then a mechanism exists by which the future can be known. The existence of such a mechanism entails either that the future exists beforehand or that some form of determinism rules the universe by which the future could be calculated. Either way, it would mean there is no libertarian free will even if God chose not to use his ability.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 20, 2007 @ 3:51 pm

  5. Michael,

    I’m not sure I see what you are getting at yet (but that may be because I’ve never played Sims). Suppose God has the ability to stop time as you suggest; how would that explain what he bases his decisions on?
    When someone prays to God and asks him to heal their cancer, what do you think God bases his decision on?

    By the way, the idea that various gods run off to separate universes to run things is not one that gets a lot of support around these parts. Most of the regulars here believe exaltation to be a social enterprise rather than one in which exalted beings are isolated in their own universes running things autonomously.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 20, 2007 @ 3:59 pm

  6. Cool. This is the kind of post that makes my head spin! I’m still on step 1–wondering if God is so involved in our day to day lives that he makes “decisions” to intervene (by answering prayers, etc.) which will have perceivable effects upon the future. Or is he, having set us upon this earth, allowing us our agency to see what we will make of the future?

    (In fact, maybe that is why he helps us find lost keys, etc. and doesn’t stop a child from dying! :) Lost keys don’t generally affect anything major.)

    One more random thought addressing two gods arriving at the same conclusions–I like the idea that God is not necessarily trying to bring about the “best” future, but rather creatively making choices based on personal preferences–forming an art work, as it were. Thus, each god might make different “decisions” creating different, but equally beautiful results.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — June 20, 2007 @ 4:57 pm

  7. Good thoughts Jacob. As you are well aware, I firmly believe your last category, “Limited Foreknowledge and Petitionary Prayer”, describes how the universe really works. As a result I think there are all sorts of options open to God. I have posted on this general subject in several ways in the past as well. In one post I suggested that all the world really is a stage and we really are improvisatory players. God has a basic plot in mind (aka knows the end from the beginning) and guides us toward that planned end but we are free to improvise our personal part and he reacts to our interactions with him accordingly. In another post I suggested that God turns the keys of the earthly kingdom over to his prophets and lets them call the shots within loose parameters he sets up. He backs their calls and only vetoes them when necessary as the director of our great play (the basic plot of which I suspect is played out on every inhabited world.) Oh, And I also posted once suggesting that God has not yet decided when the Second Coming will be.

    There may be other related posts I’ve put up but that’s a sample to show we’re thinking about similar things…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 20, 2007 @ 7:55 pm

  8. I am also in the LFPP category. Knowledge of possible futures does not seem to be much of an advantage. As each one is conditioned on the free will of multiple parties, choosing an actual direction to take is still reduced to an exercise in risk management and statistics.

    What good does it do to know that there are two possible outcomes of a certain contingency unless you have an idea of the relative likelihood of each one?

    Comment by Mark D. — June 20, 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  9. Thanks BiV. I think it is interesting to see how different people deal with the question of how involved God is. On one side, we have scriptures and early church history which suggest God can be very involved. On the other side, we all have our own experiences which tend to lead people to very different conclusions. Some people feel that God is very involved in the minutiae of their lives, others feel God almost never intervenes. Then we are left to guess at whether God deals with each of us differently or if the people with a different experience than our own are deluding themselves. (g) Either way, I am definitely with you on the idea that he allows us to participate as free agents and the future is open to what we make of it.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 21, 2007 @ 5:02 pm

  10. Mark,

    I was thinking about making the exact same point in a follow up post, but with more words for the people who won’t recognize the genius of your comment (I may still do that).

    Comment by Jacob J — June 21, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  11. Sign me up for LFPP, I think. I don’t beleive the future is at all fixed, because of the free will conundrum – and also because I find it aesthetically displeasing. That doesn’t mean that, things functioning as they always do, the future isn’t predictable. Eventually, someone invents an atom bomb, every time, and in more or less a predictable time frame. To give a crass example. In other words, even though the future isn’t perfectly fixed, causation is bound by principles in such a way that there are not an unlimted number of possible futures.

    I’m now going to broach my biggest heresy. Which is why I’m posting anonymously. I don’t beleive that God answers prayers in the way we think he does. I don’t beleive he is a big speedy telephone operator in the sky, starting or stopping time, etc. I believe he answers prayers through a divine investature of authority kind of thing. When it says in Revelation that the elders hold vials that contain odours which are the prayers of the saints, and the the angel releases incence out of His hand which comes with the prayers of the saints, we are closer to a true metaphor than the telephone operator.

    I also don’t believe that God is simultaneously aware of every speck of matter in an infinite universe. I understand the need to beleive that kind of thing. I really do. But, to me, it is a mass of confusion. We read that when God appears we will be like Him, simply because we will see him as he is. To me, that is far more wonderful than an unlimted director. It is also a God that needs us.

    Omniscience then only means that God can see anywhere, into naything that HE needs to see – including into our hearts. Omnipotence simple means He has all neccesary power to bring about His purposes. And Omnipresence means that He is completely capable of projecting His influence everywhere.

    This is still a God I have complete trust in to work out my salvation with fear and trembling before.

    ~

    Comment by anon — June 22, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  12. How and why did God decide that losing 1/3 part of his spirits in the pre-mortal was a good idea?

    If you answer involves “but they exercised their free will and choose not to follow him”, then why did God choose to create spirits that would rebel?

    Did God choose these spirits or were they assigned to him or were there God captains picking teams or was it random or first come first served?

    Comment by Daylan — June 22, 2007 @ 5:04 pm

  13. anon,

    With the ~ at the end, I thought for sure you would end up being Thomas Parkin, but then I checked your email and I guess there are two people who sign off that way.

    I don’t beleive the future is at all fixed, because of the free will conundrum – and also because I find it aesthetically displeasing.

    Agreed.

    Eventually, someone invents an atom bomb, every time, and in more or less a predictable time frame.

    I am interested in why you believe that. It seems very unlikely to me, especially when you look at history and consider the various civilizations that have come and gone. They reached very different levels of advancement and have an extremely uneven track record on inventing the same things in science and philosophy.

    I believe he answers prayers through a divine investature of authority kind of thing.

    This might not be as heretical as you think. Or rather, just as heretical, but less uncommon than you may suppose. I have heard the same idea expressed on the bloggernacle from time to time and my brother believes the same thing. I am unsure on this topic, but I have definitely entertained the idea.

    I also don’t believe that God is simultaneously aware of every speck of matter in an infinite universe.

    I have a hard time with that one as well.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 22, 2007 @ 5:21 pm

  14. Thanks, Jacob. I have another objection about the idea of knowledge of all possible futures. Namely, that it violates the principle of economy.

    The vast majority of possibilities are wildly improbable. Why should God (being a person) be bothered to become acquainted with futures whose probability is less than infinitesmal?

    Comment by Mark D. — June 22, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  15. Daylan,

    then why did God choose to create spirits that would rebel?

    As we have been discussing regularly and even recently around here, Joseph Smith taught that the mind of man is eternal, uncreated, and coeternal with God. Thus, according to Joseph, God never “created” spirits that would rebel. You might also consult this post by J Stapley which was good and had an interesting discussion following. Finding himself in the midst of intelligences which were less advanced than himself, God saw fit to institute laws whereby they could advance like himself. Some of them chose not to obey. That answer (from Joseph) seems to hold up just fine to me.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 22, 2007 @ 5:29 pm

  16. Yeah – it is actually me. I would usually only post anonymously if I was talking about my former wife. ;> But, I have been in a mood. And I had a conversation while visiting my parents in SLC over the weekend that made it plain that it is a small Mormon world, and that there are people who read these blogs. I don’t want anyone saying “Bro. Parkin doesn’t believe that God answers prayers.” Ya know. I don’t mind if mi padre or sister knows what I think on the subeject. I’m not quite as comfortable thinking that one of my ward missionaries may stumble across the post, and conclude that somehow my faith in God is less sure because I think in this way. Because, you know, I really do beleive our prayers are heard, and that God is the source of that.

    Considering the kind of things that are aired around these parts, I probably should just be more brave. If the ~ didn’t give me away, maybe the C- grammar and dyslexia would. ;)

    re: Atom Bomb and history having regular schedule. Good point – how many different would it have taken for the Romans to have stumbled into the scientific method, for instance? This could be an area where enough of the enlightenment actually comes through God’s channels that He is able to influence the timing. Or, it could just be that the governing principles are tight enough that it plays out more or less the same way over and over again, in a more or less predictable way.

    No importante?

    ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — June 22, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  17. Thomas,

    lol, I hope you don’t get any blowback on your prayer comment. Let me know if you want me to edit you back into anonymity.

    Sometimes people use an argument like the one you gave about atom bombs to explain prophecy. I personally don’t think that kind of explanation holds up because I think things are far more unpredictable, when left to themselves, than could ever be used to make specific prophecies. Geoff has suggested many times here that the basic “plot” of history is the same on all worlds (see links in his comment above), but I assume he means something more high level than the timing of the invention of atomic warfare (e.g. he has suggested the time of the second coming is not set in advance, but flexible and based on what we choose and do).

    Comment by Jacob J — June 23, 2007 @ 9:25 am

  18. Nice concise post Jacob.

    It has me thinking about judgement day now. What a decision time that will be. I am now wondering how excruciating some decisions might be for God. Sometimes it might be better to claim a lot of ignorance rather than almost none.

    This might be a case for believing that final judgement might be much more based on who we are other than what we have done. Decision making is difficult enough in simple and objective things.

    So Jacob, how ‘final’ do you think final judgement is based on God-like decision making? That decision could be a whopper!

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 25, 2007 @ 9:21 am

  19. Eric, I have always believe that in the final judgment, sitting before God, it will be we who ultimately will judge ourselves. In a way, perhaps that’s why our faith in Christ will matter so much…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 25, 2007 @ 11:03 am

  20. I have often thought that as well Matt, but I ultimately do not buy it. Some will be so hard on themselves that they won’t forgive themselves or think themselves worthy of anything. Others will excuse themselves of just about anything. If we judge ourselves, I have to believe that we will be guided through the process by Christ. But I have to believe he will have the final say. Don’t the scriptures teach that? That Christ will be the judge, and that we will be judged by him?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 25, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  21. Eric,

    Excellent question, but it will require a separate post, stay tuned.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 25, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  22. The very concept of eternity requires that time does not exsit, there is no past, present, future. Therefore, God makes perfect decisions based on perfect knowledge. We cannot comprehend “perfection.” Everything we know or have is always being improved – changing. Once you have perfection, no change is needed. Decisions require options – various ways of doing things in the future. Since there is no future, there are no decisions to be made. Again, beyond our ability to comprehend.

    Comment by Robert — June 27, 2007 @ 3:44 pm

  23. The very concept of eternity requires that time does not exsit, there is no past, present, future.

    On what do you base this assertion Robert? It obviously is not true since there are concepts of eternity where time does exist.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 27, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

  24. Hi Robert,

    See this post for my view on the idea that God lives outside of time. Eternity, as I conceive of it, does not require an absence of time. Time going forward and backward to infinity seems like a perfectly coherent concept of eternity which continues to include time.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 27, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

  25. The Scriptures seem to identify a God in time, yet a God that is somehow beyond time, not constrained by it the way we are (1 Peter 3). God could have existed during an unmetered duration–or during no “time” at all–with an eternal purpose to create the world He wanted, and an eternal purpose to accomplish particular things in each or our lives. And when He acted to create He entered into time, of necessity, now having a past and a present.

    Tremendous comfort can still come from knowing that God has always been in control and will never relinquish it. One might also draw a deeper comfort from knowing that God is in time with me right now, not unreachably transcendent, but right in this moment with me. And because He’s in this moment He can act to respond to my needs and prayers.

    I believe that God proved to us that he had control over time when Jesus turned water into wine (John 2: 1-11.) Look at what the master of the banquet said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink, but you have saved the best for last.” Choice wine is aged with perfection and I believe that part of Jesus performing that “water into wine,” miracle was to show God’s control over time. (This has nothing to do with this topic but I believe the wine was non-alcoholic)

    People now a-days are still trying to intellectually understand the unexplainable. Our human minds can’t fully comprehend God and Heaven. There are words of description that I believe God has not revealed to us hear on earth, that could explain more, but we as humans can’t understand. What about the people that come to God and say “God look how big my problem is, can you fix it.” How about going to the problem and saying “Problem, look how big my God is.” Some people put God into this little box in an attempt to limit his capabilities, unconfident in his power.

    This stuff is fun and all to talk about, but we can’t loose focus on what’s truly important. When we come before Him on judgment day, I don’t think God is going to give me his definition of time. He will be conducting a DNA test, checking my blood type. “Your covered in the blood of JC, your part of the family, come on in.” The enemy can’t take all of our Bibles or Churches, but he can use the “act to distract” as a weapon which leads our focus to the things of this world instead of the what our minds need to be focusing on, eternity.

    Comment by Dominick — July 3, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

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