How God could figure out the future without foreknowledge

January 26, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 5:11 am   Category: Foreknowledge,Theology

It turns out I missed the point in my last post… While the idea the God might be bound by our time is objectionable to many, the idea that God does not have an exact foreknowledge is the real hot button. So here is how I think God does it!

As I mentioned before, most Mormons buy into something that sounds a lot like the creedal version of God’s foreknowledge – though I don’t think most have given the idea a lot of thought. Nevertheless, suggesting that God doesn’t really see the future is apparently viewed as heretical to a lot of people.

There are lots of good arguments why God does live in time and not out of it (Blake does a nice job of illuminating those in his book). There are likewise good arguments why knowledge of a fixed future is basically a useless parlor trick. Clark Goble is the only one I have so far found who has stepped up to the plate with an explanation how there could be a fixed future combined with agency by both God and man. His explanation, though, is counter-intuitive to say the least. But Clark is pretty good at punching holes in explanations of how God acts if he can’t see the future. Here are a couple of models that have been submitted:

1. Predictive power purely based on past patterns (a little alliteration…)

This means God knows us so well he can tell what we’re going to do next as a result of our previous action. Clark shot this down pretty well recently by saying: Such predictions are only possible because the entities in question aren’t free in the Libertarian sense. So you can certainly say that this is how God knows, but then you’ve simply adopted causal determinism and are a Compatibilist. I think Ostler, among others, argues well for why that kind of Compatibilism is hard to reconcile to the gospel.

Good point.

2. Influence and not Compulsion

Another approach is to say God uses influence rather than compulsion to cause his predictions and desires for the future to come to pass. Clark complains that it is hard to imagine truly free will occurring if we are constantly being herded around by God here on earth. If this is the only method God uses it does seem that our agency is largely hampered.

So for my big proposal of the day I ask: How about a third attempt with a synthesis of the previous two models?

Here are the parts I will assume in this proposal:
a. There have been innumerable inhabited worlds before this world from God can draw as a predictive database
b. Since the course of the Lord is one eternal round, I am going to assume the basic plot of the human play is the same for all previous worlds (and no, I can’t prove that so don’t ask…)
c. God’s superior intelligence works as an unfathomable super computer which allows Him to crunch all previous data and thus make amazingly accurate predictions of free-willed people
d. Heisenberg was right in his indeterminacy principle and that this principle can be applied to mankind as a group. What I mean is, you can predict with astonishing accuracy to path of the group but you can never predict the path of the individual with such accuracy (because the individual is free, presumably).
e. God is willing to invite people to do good but never compel. However, He mostly stays out of our choices.

So from here I see a model that is not causal determinism for man, but is sympathetic to that idea. There is a course a “natural man” will take unless he actively chooses to leave that course. The vast majority of mankind goes with the flow and remains the natural man, so it might be reminiscent of determinism. But God does choose which spirits go to which body, and he knows the especially valiant spirits will not go with the flow of natural men and will become spiritual leaders here on earth. The deliberate placement of those spirits in those bodies at those times makes the predictive process more believable. Lastly, God is willing to invite individuals to choose the right via the Holy Spirit but the individual remains free to heed or ignore such promptings. I tried this model to explain the unusual case of Peter’s thrice denial to Clark:

If Christ and the Father had sufficient knowledge of Peter, they would know under which of the pressures and circumstances that would surely follow he would deny Christ three times. They could easily prompt their apostle to be in the right place, knowing that he would obey. Promptings do not coerce – they just invite. So no agency is violated there. By the same token God could invite any number of the mob via promptings to point out Peter as a follower of Christ. Perhaps in that mob hundreds had to be prompted before three chose to heed the promptings… in any case there is no violation of agency. It is like when I teach a Sunday school class and ask for a volunteer to give the prayer. There is no coercion, just an invitation and an acceptance. Everyone is free to choose throughout.

The vast majority of other prophesies are explainable through the predictive models I used above. I think this combination of factors could explain (at an elementary level) some of the ways God could predict and influence (even, in a sense “know”) the future while still allowing for full and unencumbered agency of humankind.

What do you think?


  1. There are two things that I have trouble with in this scenario, 1) God is “inviting” spurious people to essentially give Peter the opportunity to fail. Does He do that? And 2) This is essentially manipulation, which is fine and all, but I have a hard time viewing these agents as having Libertarian Free Will. So if you don’t lay claim to both, it works. 

    Posted by J. Stapley

    Comment by Anonymous — January 26, 2005 @ 1:26 pm

  2. The problem is that there are various events in the future that hinge on the free choices of a few indivudals. Even if there were ways to dealing with humanity in the mass, one wonders how much real information that would provide. i.e. certainly that is a way to grant God foreknowledge but in such a scheme he has precious little foreknowledge. 

    Posted by clark

    Comment by Anonymous — January 26, 2005 @ 1:30 pm

  3. Clark,

    but in such a scheme he has precious little foreknowledge.This is true. So the real question is if God’s having precious little foreknowledge make him unworthy of our worship? If he could still accomplish our exaltation I would say no.


    Clark had the same reaction over at his blog so you must be on to something (or I am describing it wrong). My answers to him were some thing like this:

    Q: Does God help us fail sometimes?
    A: Yes. It was probably simply a chance to show Peter his weakness. This is completely consistent with our scriptures: ?And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness?.

    Q: Isn’t this manipulation? If so how are we free still?
    A: This is a good question. It is part of the reason I am so interested in the question of whether the devil can prompt us or not… If only God can prompt us it seems like there really isn’t opposition in all things and that has implications for our agency.

    But I believe we can tune into external spiritual promptings or tune them out and hearkening or not has no canceling effect on agency. Unless you are willing to call all promptings from the Holy Ghost “manipulative”.

    Posted by Geoff Johnston

    Comment by Anonymous — January 26, 2005 @ 1:59 pm

  4. There’s another problem with this, which is that if God does has limited foreknowledge, then he cannot accurately predict the results of His own actions. He certainly can’t go around making promises of salvation and He *definitely* can’t go around saying “I know the end from the beginning” as a justification for giving advice and commandment. 

    Posted by Fraggle

    Comment by Anonymous — February 18, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

  5. First, thanks for commenting here Fraggle! I always hope to find people who can set me straight or at least help me work through the snags. I’ll try to respond to your points:

    ??if God does have limited foreknowledge, then he cannot accurately predict the results of His own actions… He *definitely* can’t go around saying “I know the end from the beginning” as a justification for giving advice and commandment.?

    Well it depends on whether we are talking about macro results or micro results. I would say God can predict as exactly as is possible with his infinite knowledge of things past. But if we as individuals really have free will then we have the ability to be unpredictable. I believe we can superimpose the uncertainty principle onto unfolding history of our world. That means God can predict what the group will do with exactness but individuals have more wiggle room. Therefore he can say he knows the end from the beginning without all the problems a fixed future entail.

    ?He certainly can’t go around making promises of salvation?

    I actually don’t think his foreknowledge or lack thereof is tied to his ability to save.

    Posted by Geoff Johnston

    Comment by Anonymous — February 18, 2005 @ 4:07 pm

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