Monday, January 23, 2012

Free agency and the multiverse

A friend asked me to consider the outcome of a past situation had different choices been made by those involved. I don't think they realized just how profound and interesting a question that was and it got me thinking about all sorts of things from the idea of personal choice to God's omniscience to Quantum Mechanics and multiverse theory.

I'm a bit of a science nut, ever since I watched "Cosmos" as a kid on PBS. I love watching "Nova," The Science Channel, Discovery and documentary films. I'm also a fan of science fiction but "hard sci-fi" absolutely fascinates me... at least when it's done well.

Image CC BY geralt
But this idea of considering alternate outcomes drew my mind to multiverse theory. According to said theory, all of those alternate choices aren't just possible scenarios, they actually happened and they are all playing out in alternate universes. The number of universes is determined by the number of possible choices, resulting in countless outcomes that present countless more choices. It's interesting to consider the possibility that somewhere, there's a universe where I decided to stay in the Navy. I'd be approaching retirement about now. In another universe, perhaps I served a mission. In another, I never moved to Utah. The possibilities are literally endless.

Now, do I personally believe that there are an infinite number of universes out there with an infinite number of Joe Puente's living out an infinite number of versions of my life? No. But this theory does offer us some insight into how God may perceive his own creation.

One favorite argument against the idea of an all-knowing God floated by self-described atheists* from time to time is this: "If God is all knowing, then He knows what choices I'm going to make already and has judged me for it. Therefore, there is no free will so why should I bother believing in God anyway?"

That's a perfect example of linear thinking. That everything is playing out in a predetermined way that we have no control over. But the doctrine of Free Agency—our God-given right to make our own choices—is so integral to the Plan of Salvation that the idea of an all-knowing God seems almost incompatible with the very concept of free will... almost.

Enter the multiverse theory. I suppose it's possible that if there is in fact a multiverse than an omniscient and omnipotent God created it and He is aware of what's happening in it at all times, including the deeds and misdeeds of every iteration of Joe Puente therein.

I prefer to think that God doesn't need to create an infinite number of universes to know every possible situation, choice and outcome. Being omniscient might preclude the need to create all those universes for the sole purpose of observing them to know how every possible choice could play out.

So, does God know what choices I'm going to make in my life? Being omniscient, the answer is a resounding yes. But does that take away my right to make my own choices if God already knows what choices I'm going to make? No.

That last sentence is where most "atheists" probably stopped reading and blew me off as just another addict to the opiate of the masses.

For those of you who have stuck with me, allow me to explain.

It doesn't matter that God already knows what choice I'm going to make because He knows what the outcome would be of all the possible choices I could make. He knows how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the Navy just as He knows how my life is playing out now but the choice was still mine to make about whether or not I reenlisted.

He knows what effect my decisions will have on the world around me before I even realize that I have a decision to make and He doesn't need to create infinite universes—each with a predetermined plan—to know all the possible outcomes of our choices. He just knows us each that well.

To illustrate my point, consider a house. A structure of your own design. You decide to choose how many rooms there are, how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, where to put the kitchen, the living room, the den, the garage, etc. You furnish the house, you stock the fridge and pantry, make it ready to move right into and you decide to rent it out—as is—with the stipulation that whoever moves in must make use of only the things that you've put into it.

Since you've designed this house and have chosen every detail of its design, construction, decoration and even the type of food that's in there, you have a pretty good idea of what kinds of choices a person can make when they move into it. You know that once they enter this house, there are only so many rooms they can go into and use. You know exactly what choices they have when they get hungry and want something to eat. Now, this is pretty abstract because no one really knows a person well enough to be able to consider where they'll go, what they'll do or even what they'll eat when left alone in a random house—or do we?

What if the person placed into this house is someone that you know very well? Extremely well, even. Like your own child. Someone who you've raised and observed for their entire life. Someone that you know so well, you could very well predict how they'll behave and what choices they'll make. Who would know better than a parent what particular foods in the pantry will not get eaten—at least right away. What books will be read and reread in the library and which will be completely ignored. Whether a closed door will be opened or left alone. Whether the attic or basement will be explored or even feared. As a parent, you may know the answers to all of these questions and possibilities but that knowledge has no effect on the ability of your child to make their own choices, even when you know every possible outcome.

Now consider how our Heavenly Parents know each of us better than our earthly parents do. Most would agree that God knows us better than we know ourselves and thus has a perfect knowledge of how we think, how we reason, how we react, how we make our choices AND how we deal with their outcomes. This is how I believe God knows every possible outcome of every possible choice we can make—but the choice is still ours.

*I'm of the opinion that Atheists are just agnostics in denial.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I had the opportunity to give a friend a blessing. She has been in quite a bit of pain—both physically and emotionally.

We spoke a bit about the propriety surrounding giving blessings for the sick, normally a two part process consisting of anointing the head of the person receiving the blessing with a drop of consecrated oil and then sealing the anointing with the blessing itself.

I had no oil with me so I simply suggested that I consecrate a small amount prior to the blessing. This made our blessing experience a three part process.

This was the first time I had been asked to give a blessing in years. I honestly don't remember how long or who I gave my last blessing too. Thank goodness for the technology in my phone that allowed me to double check the proper modus for each of these steps.

I remember the first time that I was ever asked to give someone a blessing. I was serving in the U.S. Navy in Panama and a friend who I enjoyed discussing topics of faith with had invited me over for dinner. She later asked me to bless her. She was having back problems. Every day that we went to work, we all traveled on a bus from Fort Davis to Galeta Island and the horrendous Panamanian roads made the trip very painful for her.

When the time came for me to offer the blessing, I was nervous. I remembered other blessings I had received and witnessed and thought of all the beautiful and powerful things that were said and realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to say to this woman. I started to speak and I stumbled and then I felt prompted... not to speak, but to listen. Then the words entered my mind, "Let the Spirit speak." And soon, the words that needed to be said came to me.

I had a similar experience with my friend recently. I wasn't nervous, nor did I plan on saying anything in particular. I just listened, first to her and then to the Spirit and the words that she needed to hear just came to me. There were pauses and I asked—in my mind—is that all? And a moment later, more words came until all that was needed to be said—all that she needed to hear in that moment—had been spoken.

I think many of us spend too much time worrying about details like protocol. This is ironic, because it was the Law of Moses that required strict adherence to ritual and the Gospel of Christ is more focussed on the spiritual. While there are specific ways of doing things in the church, either administratively or within the context of performing priesthood ordinances, outside of the Temple and the Sacramental prayers, it isn't always about the words that are spoken or the order in which they are said, as it is being open to the promptings of the Spirit.

When I was a boy, I had a severe allergic reaction to some weeds and pollen that were kicked into the air when I had mowed the lawn outside of our house. My eyes itched and teared profusely and I was in a great deal of pain. I was exhausted but I couldn't sleep. I cried and cried and my Dad decided to give me a blessing.

There are a few things I need to say about my Dad, first. At the time, he was in his late 60s. He was born in the U.S. but grew up in Spain. English is his second language and he speaks it with a thick Castilian accent. His education is very limited and when he writes in English, he often uses Spanish grammar. On top of that, we had only been members of the Church for a few years at this point. I'm not sure if Dad had ever given anyone a blessing up until then. But he saw that his youngest son was in pain and he knew that as a priesthood holder, he could give him a blessing.

Dad got his consecrated oil and he anointed my head with it as I kept crying and my mother held my hand. I don't think that Dad followed standard blessing protocol. I don't recall him saying one prayer to anoint and another to seal the anointing. I don't think he even spoke a word about acting under the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood. He just placed his hands on my head and began to pray. By the time he said, "Amen," I was no longer crying. My eyes still hurt but I was no longer in excruciating pain and was able to finally get some sleep.

In the end, God didn't care about the words my Dad spoke. He cared about what was in his heart and acted through him accordingly.

The next time any of us consider the manner in which we officiate in a priesthood ordinance, it's okay to think about the proper way to do it, but don't let that overshadow the most important parts of officiating in it: Our own spiritual awareness and the sincere and loving desires of our hearts. If we make that our primary focus when magnifying our callings and officiating in our priesthood duties, then God will not concern Himself with whether or not we were wearing the "right" colored clothes or whether we followed the directions to the letter. The power of the Priesthood is real and cannot be hindered by our human imperfections. Indeed, it's the Priesthood itself that is key to helping us overcome them.