Psychics, X-Files, and Divine Foreknowledge

Psychics and self-proclaimed prophets permeate our land.  They claim to know anything from a person’s future mate, to the outcome of the fall presidential election.  Sometimes they’re right.  More often, they’re wrong.  In fairness, you’d be hard pressed to find a psychic who isn’t realistic about the limitations of foretelling.  But what bothers me is this: we are never told how a mortal human being can actually know what has not yet occurred.  Are they tapping into some secret of the universe yet to be discovered?  Or are they being channeled by spirit beings that have some insight into how the future will play out?

Another interesting facet of the foreknowledge discussion is whether the future is fixed or flexible.  Put another way, is the future going to happen just as it is foreseen to happen, or can the future be altered?  This theme often plays out in television and movies, as numerous screenplays deal with how to understand the future, and how that future relates to human freedom.  Hollywood is helpful in revealing how these issues play out.  Here’s just a couple of examples:

In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil Conners finds himself awakening into the same day over and over again.  What is of interest is the fact that, other than Phil, everything and everyone else is exactly the same.  There are no nuances except what Phil brings, since he alone is aware of this maddening repetition.  Contrast this to an episode of the cult-classic, X-Files, in which agent Fox Mulder awakens each morning to the same day.  Unlike Phil Conners, however, Mulder does not initially realize this repetition; yet each time he awakens he does not do precisely the same things as the previous same-day.  Nor do the other people in this strange situation do or say exactly the same things.  Later Mulder discovers what has occurred and subsequently discloses to his partner, agent Scully, his belief in free will and a person’s ability to define each day.

The philosophy behind Groundhog Day represents the idea of a deterministic, or set, future.  The X-Files episode on the other hand, reasons that the future is more open.  Since people are free to choose, they decide their own destiny.  The question for us is which one best represents reality.  A clue to figuring out whether the future is fixed or open can be gleaned from pondering the notion of human foreknowledge. 

If someone sees a future event, that event demands that the contingencies leading up to and causing that event happen a certain way.  If anything changes, the foreseen future changes as well, even if ever so slightly.  The following illustration, drawing on the greatest sport ever invented, will help show some of the problems inherent in human foreknowledge:

 (note: though the Reds and Braves are real Major League teams, the names used in this illustration are entirely fictional.)

 The game is in the bottom of the ninth.  There are two outs and the Reds are behind the Braves 4-3.  With two outs and runners on second and third, left-hand hitter Casey Wilson, known to spray the ball in all directions, comes to the plate.  The count goes to 3-2, when the Braves coach, Bobby Holt, does something quite unusual.  He directs an infield shift to the right field side.  The shortstop slides to the first-base side of second, and the second baseman moves about fifteen feet closer to first, leaving the third baseman as the lone fielder on the left side.  This type of shift is normally only used against pull hitters, so for Holt to use it on Wilson is very strange and, some would say, stupid. 

But what nobody knows is that Bobby Holt has seen the future.  For the past seven games he has had a vision regarding a key play in each game, with that play taking place exactly as he foresaw it would.  At first somewhat skeptical, Holt refrained from taking advantage of his visions—until now.  During the top half of the ninth he had yet another vision of a key play yet to take place.  In that vision, pitcher John Smythe throws a breaking ball over the middle of the plate to Casey Wilson, who swings, grounding the ball just out of the reach of the second baseman allowing both runs to score—Reds win.

With the shift on and Smythe ready to deliver the pitch, Holt looks on with confidence, if not a certain amount of apprehension.  The pitch comes and Wilson swings, lining the ball over the head of the first baseman and down the right field line.  Both runs score—Reds win.  Holt is disappointed, wondering why this vision was wrong, whereas the others went exactly as he foresaw.  What happened?

What Holt saw in his vision was not the actual future but rather the potential future.  Had he allowed the play to continue without his interference, Wilson would indeed have hit the ball between the first and second baseman.  But with Holt manipulating the circumstance, the situation changed.  Smythe, knowing that the infield shift is on, still throws a breaking ball; but now he throws it slightly more inside, intending for the hitter to hit the ball to the right.  Wilson would love a ball out over the plate or to the outside edge so he can hit the ball to the left, easily getting a hit.  But when he sees the ball breaking to the inside corner, he goes with its direction and hits it down the line.  So what Holt saw in his vision, meaning the game-winning hit, was contingent upon a number of factors.  Among those factors were the pitch thown, its location, and the mind of the batter.  With the infield shift on, all three of these factors were altered, making Holt’s vision of the future unrealized.

This situation brings about an interesting question.  Is it possible for a human to foresee a fixed future?  On the surface at least, it would seem that it would not be possible.  The vision Bobby Holt saw becomes the fixed future only if he does nothing to change any of it.  But if he does nothing to change it, that means that something is holding him back from doing so, either internal or external to his person.  But internal is an unlikely solution, because it is next to impossible, if not impossible, for a person to do exactly what he would have done had no knowledge of the future taken place.  With foreknowledge comes new information on a certain situation.  And with this new information comes a changed perspective on what to do.  Thus, what would have been done apart from this new information becomes difficult to discern in most cases.  For instance, if Holt was the one who called all of the pitches to be thrown during a game, the possibility of Wilson’s foreseen hit becomes dubious.  However, if Holt has no say on the delivered pitch, Wilson gets his hit.  And if he has no say, but can override it and chooses not to, then his internal impulse keeps his vision of the hit a fixed event.  But with the internal as an only option, the future cannot be fixed, because that would be inconsistent with the persons desire to do something different.  And as long as a person can do something different, then the future is open to change and thus not truly foreknown.

Then there is the external factor.  The external means that even if someone knows the future event and attempts to alter it, the event will still occur as foreseen.  So what if Holt had decided to change the outcome of the game in a fixed future?  If the future is indeed fixed, Holt will be prevented from changing anything he foresaw.  But this raises another question:  Is it possible to foreknow certain events and not others?  For someone like Holt, who is allowed only a glimpse of what will occur as determined by the external, the answer would seem to be ‘yes.’  However, for the external the question is bit trickier.  We must first see that foreknowledge of any event and predetermination of that same event are inextricably linked.  In fact, it might be better to understand the logical order of things as predetermination, then foreknowledge.  So can God predetermine certain events and not others?   If God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive, so also must his foreordination be exhaustive.  All events are intimately related in such a fashion that even the slightest alteration makes either foreknowledge or foreordination shaky at best.  But God’s decrees are certain.  Therefore, foreknowledge is both exhaustive and certain; and foreordination is both exhaustive and certain.

So we see that for the external (God) to have foreknowledge, He must be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly intelligent.  He must be omniscient because He must know what Holt will do and how his actions might affect the game.  In fact, being omniscient means that God allowed or enabled his vision to happen, and that means that the future was fixed with the truth of Holt’s vision and subsequent actions already worked in.  Therefore God’s prior foreknowledge of His decision to allow for a temporal creature’s future vision, also took into account and perfectly foresaw His own prevention of Holt’s interference of what he saw.  In line with omniscience, God must be omnipotent in order to keep the events in line with what is intended to occur.  But in order for this to be true, the event must be determined (fixed), and for the event to be fixed, all contingencies must be fixed as well.  This all assumes intelligence on the part of God.  And with this intelligence must come a specific end to which all events ultimately lead. 

Therefore, a known, fixed future demands the existence of an intelligent, external agent that is both omniscient and omnipotent, and who is the one that determines what will or will not occur.  All human knowledge of the future must come from this external agent.  Any human vision of the future that does not take place is certain not to have come from this same external agent, and that vision is found to be false.

Then what are we to make of modern psychics?  We must beware of them, for even the sincere ones are deceived.  If they have any ability whatsoever to predict the future, it must come from God.  As shown above, there can be no other source for this type of information.  Anyone can predict several things and expect some to be correct.  But couldn’t some of their predictions come from God?  This is highly unlikely.  Scripturally, the standards for a prophet were extremely high – 100% accuracy was expected as a matter of fact.  Why?  Because God did not want people to be deceived, he wanted to make a distinction between true and false prophets, and he wanted to protect his name.  If God gives the vision, he must receive the glory.  But if visions given in his name do not occur, people are deceived and God’s name is reviled.  Therefore, we would do well to avoid psychics, fortune tellers, and anyone else who claims a special ability to see the future.

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Filed under Philosophy, Television, Theology

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