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. 

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