There is a classic problem in religious philosophy that I want to introduce and briefly address: the problem of free will. A lot of people who are a lot wiser than I have talked about this over the centuries, and they deal with the intricacies in much more detail than I will. (For more extensive discussions of these questions, you might start by reading the sources cited in the notes below.) So the question is, what can I possibly add to the discussion, being a mere dilettante in philosophy? My main objective is to show how the restored gospel sheds light on problems like this and helps answer questions that have puzzled people for centuries. I hope it helps people see how grateful we should be for revealed doctrines, and how carefully we should study them.
The Problem of Free Will
The problem of free will is, briefly stated, how can something have free will if something else created it? Wouldn’t the creator be responsible for everything the creation does? Take, for example, a computer program. If I write every line of code in that program, I am responsible for every subsequent action when I start running it. So if a program I make gives me undesired results, I have no one to blame but myself. I can’t say, “This stupid program isn’t doing what I told it to do.” In reality, it’s doing exactly what I told it to do; I just need to change the coding to change the outcome. In the words of my friend Cavan Morris, “There are no stupid programs, only stupid programmers.”
You can’t program a computer to have free will; it will never be able to make its own choices or express its own desires. In fact, a computer can’t even do something genuinely unpredictable. Agency is very different from randomness, but even genuine randomness is beyond programmers. Every action a computer performs is predetermined by the original set of equations and values the program started with. (Even “random number” generators aren’t truly random; “Most random numbers used in computer programs are pseudo-random, which means they are a generated in a predictable fashion using a mathematical formula.”1) For example, if I copy a program and run it on two identical computers, both computers will give me the same output. One computer can’t decide to take the same variables and equations and give a slightly different outcome. The outcome is determined by the initial set of variables.
Some people think of humans this way: since we were created by God, he decided the initial set of variables in our spirit, and that set of dispositions and inclinations causally determines all our later decisions, which cannot be genuine choices. Free will, then, must be a myth. But since the set of variables and equations are so complex and beyond our understanding, it appears to us that we have free will. So it is a helpful myth that we like to believe. (And for atheists, the same argument exists, except the variables take the form of genes and environment—nature and nurture.)
Solutions from the Restored Gospel
Thus, for centuries people have tried to reconcile two notions that seem to contradict each other:
- God created people.
- People have free will.
Revealed truth given during the Restoration of the gospel solves this conundrum. The Lord revealed certain doctrines that explain how created beings can be free to choose, and how God is not responsible for those choices. Part of the answer lies in a fuller understanding of the word creation. “Joseph Smith’s way out of the conceptual incoherency generated by the traditional theological premises is to not go in. His revelations circumvent the theoretical problem … by denying the trouble-making postulate of absolute creation.”2 The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith the true understanding of creation:
You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, â€œDoesnâ€™t the Bible say he created the world?â€ And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. … [Create] does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize. … God had materials to organize the world out of chaos.3
One of those materials was intelligence. We don’t know much about it, but one thing we do know is that “intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). Thus, at some level, there is a part of us that has always existed. While Heavenly Father created us, and was intimately involved in forming our character, talents, and personality, there is still a part of us that he did not “create” out of nothing. This explains in part how Heavenly Father is simultaneously our Creator, while not being responsible for every subsequent action that his creation performs.
In an earlier post, I explained that precious little has been revealed about intelligences. One of the only things we know is that it cannot be created, but rather has existed for all eternity. The question arises, why did Heavenly Father bother revealing the existence of intelligences and then decline to tell us much about them? He gives his reason for revealing the doctrine two verses after describing their eternal existence, in seven words: “Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:31). In other words, “Once you know that an ingredient in your make-up is uncreated and eternal, you can understand how it is possible that you have real, genuine free will, instead of being puppets to your Creator or your environment.”4
Thus, the apparent contradiction of a created being having free will and personal accountability disappears when we understand revealed truth. The Lord went out of his way to reveal the doctrine of eternally-existing intelligence specifically to help us understand how it is possible that we have agency. By teaching us that we are agents, he helps us see that (1) we are accountable for our actions and without excuse, and (2) we are free to choose liberty or death, and that the decision of whether we will end up exalted in the celestial kingdom is now entirely up to us, and entirely within our power to choose. No wonder he wanted us to know about intelligence! Even though he left many more questions about intelligence unanswered, he shared with us the one detail that matters most.
1. Neal A. Maxwell, â€œThe Richness of the Restoration,â€ Ensign, Mar. 1998, p. 8.
2. David L. Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” BYU forum, 21 Sep. 1999.
3. Joseph Smith Jr., â€œThe King Follett Sermon,â€ Ensign, Apr. 1971, p. 13â€“14.
4. For a fantastic fictional conversation that conveys this idea in an easy-to-understand way, see Orson Scott Card, Xenocide, ch. 13 “Free Will,” p. 254–57.