Story: Free Will vs Omnipotence

Date Posted: 07/08/2001 8:47 PM
Posted By: CurtP
Some of the members on this list have been asking for more “meat” in their spiritual diets. Here’s a thought provoking story and a few follow up questions that I hope will help to serve that purpose. Enjoy!

THE STORY OF OSMO
Let us suppose that God has revealed a particular set of facts to a chosen scribe who, believing (correctly) that they came from God, wrote them all down. The facts in question then turned out to be all of the more or less significant episodes in the life of some perfectly ordinary man named Osmo. Osmo was entirely unknown to the scribe, and in fact to just about everyone, but there was no doubt concerning whom all these facts were about, for the very first thing received by the scribe from God, was: “He of whom I speak is called Osmo.” When the revelations reached a fairly voluminous bulk and appeared to be completed, the scribe arranged them in chronological order and assembled them into a book. He first gave it the title “The Life of Osmo, as Given by God,” but thinking that people would take this to be some sort of joke, he dropped the reference to God.

The book was published but attracted no attention whatsoever, because it appeared to be nothing more than the record of the dull life of a very plain man named Osmo. The scribe wondered, in fact, why God had chosen to convey such a mass of seemingly pointless trivia.

The book eventually found its way into various libraries, where it gathered dust until one day a high school teacher in Indiana, who rejoiced under the name of Osmo, saw a copy on the shelf. The title caught his eye. Curiously picking it up and blowing off the dust, he was thunderstruck by the first sentence: “Osmo is born in Mercy Hospital in Auburn, Indiana, on June 6, 1942, of Finnish parentage, and after nearly losing his life from pneumonia at the age of five, he is enrolled in St. James school there.” Osmo turned pale. The book nearly fell from his hands. He thumbed back in excitement to discover who had written it. Nothing was given of its authorship nor, for that matter, of its publisher. His questions of the librarian produced no further information, he being as ignorant as Osmo of how the book came to be there.

So Osmo, with the book pressed tightly under his arm, dashed across the street for some coffee, thinking to compose himself and then examine this book with care. Meanwhile he glanced at a few more of its opening remarks, at the things said there about the difficulties with his younger sister, how he was slow in learning to read, of the summer at Mackinac Island, and so on. His emotions now somewhat quieted, Osmo began a close reading. He noticed that everything was expressed in the present tense, the way newspaper headlines are written. For example, the text read, “Osmo is born in Mercy Hospital” instead of saying he was born there, and it recorded that he quarrels with his sister, is a slow student, is fitted with dental braces at age eight, and so on, all in the journalistic present tense. But the text itself made quite clear approximately when all these various things happened, for everything was in chronological order, and in any case each year of its subject’s life constituted a separate chapter and was so titled – “Osmo’s seventh Year,” “Osmo’s Eighth Year,” and so on through the book.

Osmo became absolutely engrossed, to the extent that he forgot his original astonishment, bordering on panic, and for a while even lost his curiosity concerning authorship. He sat drinking coffee and reliving his childhood, much of which he had all but forgotten until memories were revived by the book now before him. He had almost forgotten about the kitten, for example, and had entirely forgotten its name, until he read, in the chapter called “Osmo’s Seventh Year,” this observation: “Sobbing, Osmo takes Fluffy, now quite dead, to the garden, and buries her next to the rose bush.” Ah yes, and then there was Louise, who sat next to him in eighth grade – it was all right there. And how he got caught smoking one day. And how he felt when his father died. On and on. Osmo became so absorbed that he quite forgot the business of the day, until it occurred to him to turn to chapter 26, to see what might be said there, he having just recently turned 26. He had no sooner done so than his panic returned, for lo! What the book said was true! That it rains on his birthday for example, that his wife fails to give him the binoculars he had hinted he would like, that he receives a raise in salary shortly thereafter, and so on. Now how in the world, Osmo pondered, could anyone know that apparently before it happened? For these were quite recent events, and the book had dust on it. Quickly moving on, Osmo came to this: “Sitting and reading in the coffee shop across form the library, Osmo, perspiring copiously, entirely forgets, until it is too late, that he is supposed to collect his wife at the hairdresser’s at four.” Oh my gosh! He had forgotten all about that. Yanking out his watch, Osmo discovered that it was nearly five o’clock – too late. She would be on her way home by now, and in a very sour mood.

Osmo’s anguish at this discovery was nothing, though, compared with what the rest of the day held for him. He poured more coffee, and now it occurred to him to check the number of chapters in this amazing book: only 29! But surely, he thought, that doesn’t mean anything. How anyone could have gotten all this stuff down so far was puzzling enough, to be sure, but no one on God’s earth could possibly know in advance how long this or that person is going to live. (Only God could know that sort of thing, Osmo reflected.) So he read along; though not without considerable uneasiness and even depression, for the remaining three chapters were on the whole discouraging. He thought he had gotten that ulcer under control, for example. And he didn’t see any reason to supposed that his job was going to turn out that badly, or that he was really going to break a leg skiing; after all, he could just give up skiing. But then the book ended on a terribly dismal note. It said, “And Osmo, having taken Northwest flight 569 from O’Hare, perishes when the aircraft crashes on the runway at Fort Wayne, with considerable loss of life, a tragedy the more calamitous by the fact that Osmo had neglected to renew his life insurance before the expiration of the grace period.” And that was all. That was the end of the book.

So that’s why it only had 29 chapters. Some idiot thought he was going to get killed in a plane crash. But, Osmo thought, he just wouldn’t get on that plane. And this would also remind him to keep his life insurance in force.

(About three years later our hero, having boarded a flight for St. Paul, went berserk when the pilot announced they were going to land at Fort Wayne instead. According to one of the flight attendants, he tried to hijack the aircraft and divert it to another airfield. The Civil Aeronautics Board cited the resulting disruption as contributing to the crash that followed as the plane tried to land.)

SOME BASIC QUESTIONS:

1) Does “knowledge” always imply truth? Can you know something that is not true or does that demote it to mere belief?

2) Did God really “know” what would happen to Osmo in the future? Does He know what will happen to you in the future?

3) Was Osmo free to choose anything other than what God knew would happen? Are you?

4) If Osmo could have chosen anything else, then did God really “know” what would happen or did He merely “believe” what might happen?

5) As far as your freedom to choose is concerned, does it make any difference what causes you to make a given choice (God or something else)? Is your freedom to choose eliminated by something (anything) that caused you to choose a certain way, which God knew about? Does God’s foreknowledge of your life indicate that you are not free to choose, regardless of what causes you to make take a given course?

6) How does Mormon theology differ from pretty much all other Christian theologies with regards to dealing with this apparent contradiction?


Date Posted: 07/09/2001 2:37 PM
Posted By: Dathon
Rank: sum, ergo cogito?CurtP wrote:
SOME BASIC QUESTIONS:

1) Does “knowledge” always imply truth? Can you know something that is not true or does that demote it to mere belief?


Certainly the questions you raise are perilous to answer and vex philosophers, philosophasters and other inquirers. I don’t know that I have should have the temerity to give my naive answers here. OTOH I’m not sure that citing sources wouldn’t be just an attempt to hide my own impressions and naivety behind the opinions (however well reasoned or inspired) of others.

1) For me knowledge implies provisional understanding; a relatively secure or confident belief. I know that I exist and that I interact in a larger world because I accept that my perceptions result from something external. I take external reality as a sort of background assumption.
Can I know something that is not true. I’ve heard several people make claims of knowing things that I felt the bulk of the evidence did not support. People can claim to know things that other people could make reasonable claims against or even show to be demonstrably untrue. In my opinion when one claims to know something that cannot be empirically demonstrated or logically proven to the satisfaction of a hypothetical rational person (a difficult hypothesis)then the person doesn’t really know but has a strong belief. I’m not sure one should treat such a belief pejoratively as just or mere belief.

-That’s my rough online response to your first question. I think I’ll give the others some thought and come back to discuss them later. I didn’t want you to wait too long or lose hope of a reply. How do you respond to the first question?


————————-
It takes all sorts to make a church and I see no sense in pretending to be the mormon norm when one is not.
—-
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.” -Stephen Jay Gould
—-
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech at Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963


Date Posted: 07/09/2001 4:43 PM
Posted By: CurtP
Dathon wrote:
“That’s my rough online response to your first question. I think I’ll give the others some thought and come back to discuss them later. I didn’t want you to wait too long or lose hope of a reply. How do you respond to the first question?”

Curt:
Ah, Dathon, somehow I knew it would be you to respond first.

Does knowledge always imply truth? By strict definition, it does. Anything less is mere faith or belief. However, as you point out, in practical use, it does not. People claim to “know” a lot of things that just ain’t so.

As it applies to the story of Osmo, the real question is whether or not God’s knowledge always implies truth. Or does God merely “believe strongly?” If God’s knowledge always implies truth and He knows what I will choose to do tomorrow, then it follows that I have no choice but to do what He knows I will do. Thus I have no freedom of will.

The mistake most people make with this argument is that they will claim that just because God knows what I will do doesn’t mean that He causes what I will do. This is exactly right but has no affect on the argument before us. It doesn’t matter what causes me to do something. The mere fact that God knows that I will do it suggests that something will cause it to happen and that, therefore, I am not free to choose anything else. If I am free to choose something else, then it follows that God does not “know” what I will choose.

Hence the problem before us: Either God does not know what I will choose or I am not free to choose. It cannot be the case that God knows what I will choose and I am free to choose something else. I see no other alternatives. Do you?


Date Posted: 07/09/2001 11:03 PM
Posted By: Dathon
Rank: sum, ergo cogito?Reply to Curt:

Did you KNOW I would be the first to take the bait or was it merely a strong belief? <G>

Somehow I feel used. To think I used laugh at Shakespeare’s character Malvolio only to find myself capering about foolishly in discursive yellow stockings and pitifully cross gartered.

Is one of the problems of human philosophy the difference between strict definition and actual application in the inherently imprecise and messy world of human interaction?

If God knows our intentions, motivations and future actions isn’t life more of a fixed drill than an appropriate test, more validation than probation? Intuition and vague memories of arguments encountered long ago give me a sense that there is a plausible, intelligible and fruitful resolution to this apparent dilemma.

I feel a bit like the tin woodsman from the Wizard of Oz, I need a lubricant for my brain. Perhaps I’m more like the scarecrow then.


————————-
It takes all sorts to make a church and I see no sense in pretending to be the mormon norm when one is not.
—-
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.” -Stephen Jay Gould
—-
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech at Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963


Date Posted: 07/10/2001 4:39 PM
Posted By: CurtP
Interesting response, Dathon. You take the same stance most people take when they encounter this problem. For some reason, most people are more willing to give up the notion of free will than they are that God may not have absolute foreknowledge. What if God isn’t omniscient in the commonly held way we always think He is?

Interestingly enough, LDS doctrine (the real stuff as opposed to the stuff you usually hear in church or from BR McKonkie) seems to take the stance that God is not absolutely omniscient. Probably without knowing it, JS solved this apparent contradiction by stating that God is still progressing in knowledge – that He is not omniscient as we generally think He is. This concept bothers most people to no end, but makes perfect sense and solves both this and other logical problems that have plagued philosophers for centuries.

Here are a few references you may already be aware of on this issue:

“Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.” (D&C 130:10-11)

Notice in these verses that those in the celestial kingdom will be given a white stone whereby things pertaining to a HIGHER ORDER of kingdoms will be revealed. This says at least two things: 1) celestial beings are still learning and 2) that those beings are learning about higher orders of kingdoms. This then helps us to better understand the following verse in the D&C about exactly how God “knoweth all things”:

“Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ…the same which knoweth all things, for [because] all things are present before mine eyes;…” (D&C 38:1-2)

Here are some other quotes that also add to this idea:

“And so in every inhabited world, and in every system of worlds, a God presides. Deity in his own right and person, and by virtue of the essence of him; and also by virtue of His being the sign and symbol of the collectivity of the Divine Intelligences of the universe. Having access to all the councils of the Gods, each individual Deity becomes a partaker of the collective knowledge, wisdom, honor, power, majesty, and glory of the Body Divine,…” (Elder B.H. Roberts, Mormon Doctrine of Deity, p. 198)

“Though God knows all things within His vast domain and has access to the truth and power of higher realms within the divine patriarchal order of eternity, He is continually progressing in truth as he advances from one level of celestial glory and power to a higher one. Those within that celestial system are continually moving upward into greater and greater degrees of refinement and power, and to higher and higher realms of celestial life.” (Hyrum Andrus, Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, p. 507)

“If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, world without end. It is just so with us.” (President Wilford Woodruff, JD 6:120)

“…there is progress for our Father and for our Lord Jesus. There is no such thing as standing still in the eternal work of our God. It is endless progress, progressing from one degree of knowledge to another degree.” (President George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth 1:118)

“All organized existence is in progress to an endless advancement in eternal perfections,…there is no point in all the eternities, where organized existence will become stationary, that it cannot advance in knowledge, wisdom, power, and glory. All things that have come within the bounds of man’s knowledge–the things he naturally understands–teach him that there is no period, in all the eternities, where organized existence will become stationary, that it cannot advance in knowledge, wisdom, power, and glory.” (President Brigham Young, commenting on Abraham 3:26, JD 1:349)

“…we will continue on improving, advancing and increasing in wisdom, intelligence, power and dominion, worlds without end.” (President Lorenzo Snow, Conference Report, April 1901, p. 2)

What if these teachings are correct? What if God is not omniscient in the way we usually think of it? This would certainly have an effect on people whose simple faith can’t handle such a truth. But it would also solve a lot of other problems that affect thoughtful people’s faith in equally disturbing ways. I like it. I like it a lot.

I think when all is said and done, we’re going to find that God is much more like us than we think or feel comfortable with and yet still so far ahead of us as to be somewhat incomprehensible. …just my opinion.


Date Posted: 07/10/2001 8:51 PM
Posted By: Dathon
Rank: sum, ergo cogito?Reply to Curt: (as if there were numerous here to respond to)

Did I imply that I preferred to hold on to the notion of a wholly omniscient Deity over the notion of free will? If so I apologize.

When I asked if an omniscient deity’s knowledge made the notion of earthly probation moot I neglected to clarify that I do not think free will is an illusion. To me the resolution of the dilemma is that free will is real and that somethings are not perfectly known in advance, even to Deity. I agree with the notion that God’s knowledge of our choices and actions is limited. (Here in the minds of some I indulge in one of Bruce R. McConkie’s 7 heresies — I was there when he gave that talk — but too me it doth not stink!) I don’t feel that a benevalent God would send his children to an earthly existence to learn and experience free agency if in fact that God had a perfect knowledge of every thought and action his children would take.

I can see how one might meet stares of disbelief and disapproval in SS or PH meetings. The casual or naive discussion of foreordination versus predestination I have heard in quorum meetings and elsewhere have not been productive or terribly plausible or fruitful for me.

Your sources are interesting. You’ve obviously given this matter a great deal of thought. Would you like to continue with the first question or proceed to another? We needn’t go on in linear fashion. I suspect the questions will afford a spiral discussion.

Thanks.


————————-
It takes all sorts to make a church and I see no sense in pretending to be the mormon norm when one is not.
—-
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.” -Stephen Jay Gould
—-
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech at Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963


Date Posted: 07/12/2001 10:22 PM
Posted By: Dathon
Rank: sum, ergo cogito?Reply to John*:

It’s apparent that CurtP has upset you and that you disagree vehemently with his views about religion and perhaps other subjects.
How can I be sure that your characterization of his belief and behavior are accurate and fair? I did not undertake the exchange on this thread because I felt I would agree with everything expressed by others but because I am interested in sharing ideas, even if I may disagree with particular aspects of any given proposition or argument.
While I appreciate your concern I am not sure your post helps me, CurtP or even you. If you find his messages offensive I suggest you avoid his posts (and ignore his e-mail) or that you frame the debate in civil and rational terms. If you see traps or fallacies in his arguments or ideas please feel free to point them out. I do not know either his character or yours. I choose to hold a charitable and diplomatic view of all people who post unless or until they give me good cause to doubt their honesty or sincerety. I know no one without any faults. If I stopped speaking to flawed people or people stopped speaking with me because of my flaws and weaknesses my world would be quite dull.

I invite you to forgive or at least attempt detente, or to agree to a truce with CurtP that you each leave the other alone.

I bid you peace.