Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The road goes ever on

I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the other day. I have seen it many times, and I should point out before I go any further that I am a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings. Hence, I have read and dearly love the books that the films are based on. Anyway, watching it reminded me of one of my favourite poems found in various forms throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is called The road goes ever on. This is how it is written in its original incarnation in The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
So why do I care about this poem, and why am I writing about it on a blog that is primarily intended for a discussion of mormon issues? Well, I got thinking about this poem, and I was struck by how mormon it felt to me. It struck a chord with me, with all its references to an endless path that we have in front of us to follow and progress along, and the idea that though this road leads through "fire and sword" and "horror in the halls of stone", we will eventually "Look at last on meadows green / And trees and hills [we] long have known". While I certainly do not believe Tolkien was contemplating eternal progression and the pre-existence while writing this poem (he objected to referring to any of his work as overtly Christian, let alone mormon), I was struck by how prevalent these ideas seem to be in the poem, and I certainly find it a moving and poetic expression of these doctrines.

The poem makes a slightly modified appearance in the very first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

In this I read the beautiful concept of following the path that God calls us to tread, trusting in His wisdom, and having faith that we are playing an important role in "some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet".  This concept is further reiterated in Frodo's recollections of Bilbo's thoughts on the Road: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

Of course, the variant that appears in The Return of the King seems to conflict with eternal progression if we assume that 'the Road' is our eternal journey, however that can also be meaningful and profound from a mormon perspective if we use an interpretation of 'the Road' as our time spent in mortality and our efforts to further God's plan for His children while in mortality.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

However, I am not finished. There is more poetry for us to gleefully tear out of context and apply to a mormon worldview. In the second stanza of 'Upon the hearth the fire is red', a song first sung in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien poetically talks about the dizzying heights our journey may lead to:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

This concept of hidden paths that, if followed, will lead travellers to the sun or the moon is even further amplified in the second version of this song, in The Return of the King:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

In this version, the final destination is not only the moon and the sun, but "west of the moon" and "east of the sun". For those of you who don't know your fairy-tale lore, "east of the sun and west of the moon" is a phrase traditionally used to refer to a different world or realm that is extraordinarily difficult to reach or enter. If we are going to apply this poem to a mormon framework, then this verse expresses an unshakeable faith that one day we will attain exaltation, no matter how difficult or unlikely or far-fetched it may seem at times.

So, basically, the Lord of the Rings should be canonised because it clearly contains the fulness of the restored gospel and JRR Tolkien must have been a divinely inspired prophet of God.  That was a joke, by the way, in case you didn't pick that up. But in all seriousness, I love Tolkien's poetry, and have always loved his books. It was just a pleasant surprise to discover that some of his work could be interpreted in a way that illustrated some of the most beautiful concepts in mormon thought, and made me value and appreciate it all the more.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Small is beautiful: a latter-day saint endorsement of distributism

"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

So writes the legendary Catholic writer G K Chesterton in his 1921 book The Uses of Diversity. He proceeds to explain this quote in terms of what it means to be a capitalist. For Chesterton, being a capitalist involves owning your own resources, owning private property, owning your own portion of the means of production.

Chesterton sees very little difference between free-market capitalism and state socialism - after all, both involve very large shares of the world's resources being concentrated in the hands and under the control of a very small group of people, whether that group is made up of the CEOs of a handful of multinational corporations or the handful of government ministers who control the national economy. For Chesterton, this is the root of the problem faced by every economic system - too many resources concentrated in the hands of too few people. In other words, "too few capitalists".

I have come to personally appreciate and embrace distributism as an economic philosophy. Distributism was the economic theory developed by Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc to try and solve this problem faced by both socialism and capitalism. Distributism proposes that the means of production be decentralised and distributed as widely as possibly among the general population rather than being concentrated in the hands of the government or a handful of CEOs. This would mean, in effect, an economy composed of a large number of small businesses.

The reason I am so attracted to distributism from a latter-day saint perspective is its emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence. When the community's resources are concentrated in the hands of the government, you are entirely dependent upon the government for your employment and livelihood. When the resources are concentrated in the hands of mutinational corporations, you are dependent upon them for your employment and livelihood. Under a distributist system, you own a small share of the resources yourself, and are thus dependent only upon yourself for your employment and livelihood.

This is attractive to me because where there is no dependence there is no coercion. As Belloc put it: "A family possessed of the means of production—the simplest form of which is the possession of land and of the implements and capital for working the land—cannot be controlled by others. Of course, various producers specialize, and through exchange one with the other they become more or less interdependent, but still, each one can live “on his own”: each one can stand out, if necessary, from pressure exercised against him by another. He can say: “If you will not take my surplus as against your surplus I shall be the poorer; but at least I can live.”

This economy of freedom and independence is central to the mormon understanding of agency. Agency is central to latter-day saint belief. This belief has influenced our views on suffering
(see my previous post), the purpose of life and, for a good deal of our history, politics. Because of our belief in agency, we have a long history of supporting democracy and the constitution. I feel that it is about time we applied our belief in agency to the economic realm.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Compatibilist free agency

Ok, so for my first post, I decided to plunge right in the deep end and tackle a rather deep and complex issue in mormonism: that of free agency.  In doing so, I will first need to outline some key fundamental philosophical concepts in the debate over free will. Let me apologise in advance for the length!

So. In the philosophy of free will, there are two main important questions. Firstly, is determinism true (by which I mean, is everything that happens caused by something else; are all our actions determined by a specific, or many specific, cause/s; do we live in a universe of cause and effect)? Secondly, do we, as human beings, have free will?

These two questions create four possible quadrants. Those who believe that determinism is false, and that we have free will, are called metaphysical libertarians. Those who believe that determinism is false, and yet also believe that for some reason we do not have free will, are called hard indeterminists. Those who believe in determinism and thus believe that we do not have free will, are called hard determinists. Those (like myself) who believe that we live in a deterministic universe, but nevertheless affirm that we have a form of agency or free will, are known as compatibilists.

Ok, now that I have briefly tried to explain some key terminology, let me try and justify my viewpoint. Let me start with why I believe in determinism. Firstly, we have the findings of neuroscience. Neuroscientists have been able to determine what choice a person will make, by looking at their brain activity, in some cases up to ten seconds before they become consciously aware of making that decision. This strongly implies that our thoughts and decisions are caused by neural activity in the brain, not the other way around. Now one may argue that this does not threaten a religious viewpoint, because it could be argued that our spirit makes a decision, which then causes our brain to respond in a certain way, which then causes us to perceive these thoughts as if they were a conscious decision. This would be perfectly valid, except for the fact that it's not true.

Our brain is simply a conglomeration of cells. Cells are not directed by immaterial entities; such a possibility would completely violate the laws of physics. Cells are directed and controlled by the DNA in the cell's nucleus, and brain cells are no exception to this rule. What this means is that a chain of causation can be drawn: at conception, our DNA is determined by the DNA of our parents; this DNA determines how our neurons will behave in every possible situation; this neural behaviour determines which thoughts we think and which decisions we make in any given situation.

For these reasons, I think the findings of neuroscience present a fairly strong case for a deterministic view of free will. However, I am not any kind of scientist, much less a neuroscientist. I prefer to come at things from a more philosophical/theological perspective. I think that this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that determinism is true as well.

What is it that makes me decide how I will react in a given situation? Why is it that if you were to put me and another random person in exactly the same situation, we would probably react in very different ways? The fact that I can predict with great accuracy how my brother would react if you were to put him in a specific situation must mean that there is something about him, which I am very familiar with and understand fairly well, which is determining how he will react in that particular situation. Now, if I were to ask most people what that something was, I'm sure most would give an answer something along the lines of "his nature", "his personality" or "his identity". Perhaps some religious people would respond with "his spirit". The fact is, there is something that is causing him to react in that way, and I am familiar enough with it to be able to predict what his reaction will be.

Now, in Mormonism, this idea fits pretty well into our theology. We believe in an omniscient God. Abraham 2:8 says: "My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning". This means that Jehovah knows how everything will turn out in the end. Now, this poses a difficulty for a faith which also strongly affirms free will. We are faced with the difficulty of reconciling an omniscient God with human agency. If God already knows what we're going to do, how can we be free? Most people would attempt to answer this using something along the lines of St Augustine's reasoning in Chapter 10 of The City of God:  "For a man does not therefore sin because God foreknew that he would sin. Nay, it cannot be doubted but that it is the man himself who sins when he does sin, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew not that fate, or fortune, or something else would sin, but that the man himself would sin, who, if he wills not, sins not. But if he shall not will to sin, even this did God foreknow". In simpler terms, God knows us well enough (in other words, He understands our nature so completely) to be able to predict with certainty how we will act in a given situation. Because of this, He can know how we will act in every situation we will face, because He knows us so infintely well.

This, to my mind, is nevertheless deterministic. There is something, distinctive and individual to all of us, that determines how we react and the decisions we make in any given situation. Neuroscientists refer to that as DNA. Religious folks call it our spirit, our nature, or something similar. I'm going to follow the religious trend from now on, simply because I'm more familiar and comfortable with it. We find that we can once more draw a line of causation. We choose to react in a certain way in a given situation, this decision is determined by our nature, this nature is determined by.......? For Christians who assert that free will is a perfectly valid solution to the problem of evil, their defense falls down at this point. Why? Because they affirm that God created us, that we had a beginning, that only God is eternal and that He created our spirits/natures. Such a belief makes God ultimately responsible for every decision we make. I decide to steal a car (hypothetically, of course), which is caused by my overwhelming desire to possess the car (so overwhelming that it outweighs my desire to do the right thing). This overwhelming covetous desire is caused by my immoral/imperfect nature, which according to most Christians, was created by God. God is the ultimate culprit.

Mormonism solves this problem. The issue Christians face rests on the assumption that God created us. Although Mormonism affirms that God created our spirits, "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D&C 93:29). By affirming that the essence of our being - our nature, our intelligence - is co-eternal with God, as opposed to being created by Him, it absolves Him of the blame or responsibility for our imperfect nature, and thus for any choices we might make.

For these reasons, I believe that we live in a deterministic universe. Every choice we make is determined by our nature/identity. I will grant that it is perhaps possible to argue that this is not entirely deterministic, because according to mormonism our identity is not determined by anything else. It is eternal, uncreated, and thus undetermined. However, the central issue in free will is not so much about whether an entirely pure form of determinism exists, but rather whether or not our choices are determined by something else. I believe they are, and so I claim the label 'determinist'. However, I also believe in a form of free will. I believe that even though we may not be able to change who we are, and we cannot alter our naure, is such a thing really required for free will to exist? If you were to ask a person on the street for a definition of free will, they would most likely give an answer along the lines of: "the ability to do whatever we want". That is the key: doing whatever we want. And what we want is determined by our nature. Let us consider the alternative, which would be doing what we do not want to do. Is this free will? Even if we did not have any wants at all, if we did not have a nature, that would render us "things to be acted upon", rather than "things that act". To me, the only real, coherent definition of free will that makes sense is one that takes place within a compatibilistic framework. For this reason, I am grateful for a Latter Day Saint theology that encompasses determinism while still upholding agency and absolving God of any responsibility for our actions.