I’ve written about theology before for Times And Seasons, but I haven’t actually done very much theology here or elsewhere in public. I have two reasons for finally taking the plunge. The first is selfish: I don’t think my ideas are going to get any better closeted in my own head. No one who creates really likes criticism, but ultimately its necessary if you want to get any better. The second is perhaps a bit more altruistic. I’ve written that theology is a kind of worship, and I’d like to illustrate what I mean by that.
Mormons believe that this mortal existence is a phase in much longer life story. We have histories and identities that predate our mortal birth, and the arc of our destinies lies beyond the horizon of the grave. The purpose of this life is to test us, but not so much as a process of evaluation as one of deciding and creating. The ultimate goal is, of course, unreachable. We are commanded to be perfect, but each of us sins and falls short. Only the unearned grace of Christ is sufficient for salvation. But the command is still in effect, and so Christ’s grace saves us from sin, but doesn’t preclude our futile efforts to resist and rise above.
The same holds true for theology. As Mormons, we believe that all truths can be circumscribed into one eternal whole. We believe that whatever we learn of those truths here on Earth rises with us in the next life. And yet our mortal attempts to discover or construct this grand unifying theorem are destined to failure here on Earth. Our enlightenment, like our salvation, depends on the grace of Christ. And yet, as with the fight against sin, it is a fight we cannot lay aside.
And so it is that I find the best of existentialism and romanticism in Mormonism. We must struggle all our lives wrestling meaningfulness from the barren and unyielding soil of a chaotic world that fundamentally does not make sense, and yet in the end we hope for a happy ending. This is the sense in which I take these words of Dostoevsky and MacDonald: I would choose Christ over the truth, and yet I dare believe that Christ is truth.
This is why theology is, for me, a kind of worship. It’s a useless but indispensable endeavor. And it is not enough to merely go through the motions. As with any ritual, the power is unlocked only by sincerity of purpose.
That’s’ the spirit of my theological endeavors. I am sincere because the famous quote of George E. P. Box gives me hope. “All models are wrong,” he said, “but some are useful.” Despite knowing I won’t ever reach the Grand, Unifying Theory of Everything, I might be blessed with some insight that is useful. And, armed with that hope, I’m able to strive sincerely. And in that spirit, here is a post–the first of a few. perhaps–where I’ll plant my amateur flag and venture into speculative Mormon theology. I’ll start with the ontological significance of free will.
I’m far from the first Mormon to note that our doctrine affords a unique perspective into the timeless free will debate because it teaches that we are in some sense coeternal with God and fundamentally uncreated. This creates the possibility for Mormons to believe in radical free will, that not only are we free to act out our natures but free to determine our natures. The problem with the first version of free will is that it is not free will at all and that not only do we lose free will in that paradigm, but existence itself. The problem with the second version, is that its hard to make sense of an idea of self-determination of our very nature.
The metaphor I’ve tried to use to articulate my view that free will and existence are tied together comes from the mechanics of wave propagation. (You can imagine why this has had less than widespread appeal.) The idea is that we frequently conceive of waves as being discrete entities when they are, in fact, merely properties of the water of which they are composed. If you drop a pebble in a pond, the concentric rings will appear to move out across the surface of the water but, as these visualizations illustrate, there’s no such horizontal motion. Another way to think about it as to imagine an audience at a sporting event doing the wave. Again: there’s the unmistakable appearance of motion along the stadium even though everyone involved simply stands up and then sits back down in their seat.
The point of my metaphor is that without some kind of uncaused, self-originating spark of will, the appearance of individual identity is a similar kind of illusion that mistakes properties of a single substrate for discrete objects. Without free will, we all fade back into the fundamentally undifferentiated substrate of the physical universe. Neuroscientist and philosopher Raymond Tallis explained the problem in this way (the context was slightly different, but the logic is identical):
Unfortunately, if you believe that these mental states are physical states then, some neurophilosophers have argued, they too must be the product of other physical states. They have a causal ancestry that reaches beyond anything that you would regard yourself as being. You — your brain, your mind, your consciousness — are wired into the universe. And the wiring does not simply connect you to your body, or even to your immediate environment; it goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe. In short, you are stitched into a seamless flow of material events subject to the laws of nature. Your actions cannot be in any way exempt from these laws. You are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material world,
In other words: the stakes of the free-will debate are much higher than most people realize, because existence itself stands or falls with free will. Things to be acted upon are part of an ontologically undifferentiated mass of stuff, with no more fundamental validity for differentiation between Tom and Sue than a wave can be differentiated from the ocean. Thing to act, however, are, entirely different kinds of entities. I don’t think that this implies a binary categorization so much as a continuum. (The most breathtaking example of this comes from literature with Paul Bowles existentialist novel The Sheltering Sky, in which a character descends gradually from a thing-to-act into a thing-to-be-acted-upon over the course of the second half of the narrative.)
As long as the human beings are created–either by God or by physical processes–there really is no possible outlet for free will. Determinism implies, as Tallis argues, that we’re just another conduit through which causation flows. References to quantum uncertainty replace determinism with randomness, which is hardly any improvement at all. To go from “all my actions and perceptions are determined by a chain of causation starting at the Big Bang” to “all my actions and perceptions are determined by a roll of the quantum dice” is the epitome of frying pan to fire relocation. Mormonism escapes the chain-of-causation trap without relying on random chance, but what sense can we make of a self that is fundamentally self-determining down to its very nature?
Free will seems to depend on the existence of options. These need not be practically available courses of actions, but at least goals towards which the self can will. And so, if free will is an irreducible element of our existence, it might follow that there is an irreducible pair of options to go along with it. There must be some spark of volition at the heart of our essence that is intrinsically free and which simply wills. I believe this corresponds with the idea of “intelligences” which seem to be even more elemental to our identity than spirit, and the simplest candidate for this pair of options is Shakespearean: to be or not to be. The First Decision is to exist or not. This is self-referential, yes, but that’s why it’s fundamental. At the very heart of our being the core question we answer is whether to answer any question at all.
I don’t imagine that this question is ever answered with finality, and I think it’s intriguing to imagine that all existing matter exhibits some of this elemental spark. But from this central question, it is possible to imagine an entire universe of moral law expanding.
Perhaps the self can be said to more fully exist if it moves from solipsism to an idea of the not-self. At its most basic, this would mean the self perceives a passive environment. The universe expands from just “I” to “I and my environment”. But, to exist even more fully, the self can perceive the existence of other selves, independent but equally as real. The universe from just “I” to “I, the environment, and the other(s),” and the self is richer for it. I think that in order to fully perceive the other, however, the self must understand the other. I also believe, unashamedly citing Ender’s Game, that whenever we truly understand another, we must invariably love. The greater our understanding of the other as an independent self, the greater our empathy. Thus: our own existence is contingent on our ability to love others and the fundamental spark, the will to will and thus to exist, unfolds like a flower to the greatest commandment and gift of God: charity.
I believe it’s possible that all the various commandments which we obey derive from this kind of love, which I imagine to coincide with C. S. Lewis’s description:
You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent, as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
If this is true, then we have an existential basis for morality, which I admit just resonates with me more profoundly than the idea that morality is arbitrarily inscribed in the metaphysics of the universe just because. If this is true, we also have basis for a new conception of the term “God” itself. Perhaps “God” refers primarily to that point in conceptual space where a being has reached the pinnacle of existence through perfect, vulnerable empathy with all other beings. Any “person” who reaches that point would necessarily see eye-to-eye with all other beings who occupy that point, would follow moral laws in exact harmony, and could so be referred to as “God” for all practical purposes. This is not so much an alternative to social trinitarianism as it is a reformulation that provides a rational basis for why the Godhead would be in such perfect harmony.
In closing, I just want to reiterate why I’m bothering with this at all. I think about theology for the same reason, I believe, that others sing hymns of thanksgiving or write poems of praise, which is that I cannot approach the divine accept through the intermediary of some secondary activity. That’s what I believe worship is.
Although I’m reasonably confident that nothing I’ve written is correct in any kind of a final sense, I hope that the reasoning is sound and that there are some insights that can be useful. I want to do a good job of theology for the same reason that the ward choir wants to do a good job of singing. First, because bad theology is as unpleasant as bad singing, but more importantly because if we don’t try to do a good job in our worship it’s not really worship at all. Of course this shouldn’t obviate disagreement at all, but my hope is to create a model for communal theologizing where the first principle is an understanding that we can be unified in our intentions even if our perceptions are radically diverse. I have no idea if that will really work, but this is me putting my practice where my theory is.
Great thoughts, Nate. Great quotes from Dostoevsky. I have read about half so far, and will read the second half later.
Great post. I love your take on theology being a form of worship. You hit on so many questions I have thought about for a long time, but my obsession with free will and existential questions have led me in a different direction. I ended up writing a sci-fi novel instead. I particularly like your point about about what follows from determinism. I reminded me of a scene in my novel. (Warning: shameless plug.)
Below is an excerpt of a rather overt conversation between two characters about secular versus non-secular governments that foreshadows the theme of the story.
Farah processed his statement. “So why can’t a government that denies free will have citizens?”
“How do you define citizen?”
“An individual legally belonging to a state,” she said slowly.
“How do you define individual?”
She paused. “Where are you going with this?”
“It’s actually very simple if not for the anthropocentric and, even further, the biocentric lens through which we see the world. If we are not free agents, it follows that everything about us is determined and could have been predicted at the time the universe began. You and I are conglomerations of particles acting out their immutable course, each one following the script that was written for it at the beginning. That is all the identity we have. It follows that we can’t define a boundary between us and our environment without invoking a policy of segregation founded upon a particular bigotry.”
“Yes, bigotry. We thought ourselves the pinnacle of the animal kingdom—the distinctly superior breed. Then we discovered DNA, putting us back in the same category as bacteria. In fact, we found that the genomes of bacteria were far more elegant for their purposes than our own was for ours. If that was not enough, we found it impossible to agree on what was alive and what was not. What is the definition of life? Where does ‘me’ end and the material around ‘me’ begin? Must one be composed of membrane-bound cells to be inducted into the exclusive fraternity? Are the wielders of DNA the sole holders of the title ‘alive?’ Or, are both things required? You see, we can’t define ‘individual’ or ‘citizen’ without invoking an arbitrary or non-scientific distinction between us and our environment.”
Great thoughts, Nathaniel. Thanks for sharing.
‘If this is true, then we have an existential basis for morality’
Can you explain how you make this connection? Sorry, I’m having a hard time seeing it from what you wrote (though I read it pretty quickly). Thanks again.
This is a strong, clear post, Nathaniel. I especially appreciate your description of theology. I think it hits the mark.
I’m less sure, though, about your account of agency. Your background discussion of causality and how it threatens agency is, I think, textbook. But I’m not sure why we should begin from the metaphysical assumption of a causal univocity.
You argue something like: “Given a univocal causal chain, there is no room for agency, so if there is agency it must have existed from the beginning (co-eternally) outside that single causal chain.”
I think that’s right, but why assume a univocal causal chain?
If agency requires causal plurality, why not take causal plurality as the starting point with respect to thinking about causality per se? Why not take the causal plurality implied by agency as the rule (or model) of causality itself rather than beginning from the rule of causal univocity and then having to posit agency as an exception to that rule?
If we don’t start with a mechanical notion of causality that encompasses all of what’s real and that operates all on a single plane, then we also may not need to posit so strongly libertarian a notion of free will (a libertarian notion which, I think, is also spiritually problematic).
I’ve tried (clumsily) to write about this a little bit before (here) when The God Who Weeps got me thinking about it.
At any rate, I think we can end up with a more plural, flexible, and interdependent notion of agency if we begin with a more plural, flexible, and interdependent notion of causality itself.
I’m far from the first Mormon to note that our doctrine affords a unique perspective into the timeless free will debate because it teaches that we are in some sense coeternal with God and fundamentally uncreated. This creates the possibility for Mormons to believe in radical free will, that not only are we free to act out our natures but free to determine our natures.
The problem with the first version of free will is that it is not free will at all and that not only do we lose free will in that paradigm, but existence itself. The problem with the second version, is that its hard to make sense of an idea of self-determination of our very nature.
Actually, I think you have it backwards. I can understand God creating us as miniature first causes, i.e., giving us libertarian free will. God would still be in some sense a “cause” of our choices, but he wouldn’t be the sole cause, and that is all that libertarian free will requires.
On the other hand, if God creates you, compatibilist free will doesn’t work. It is not free, because it is dictated by an outside entity. Compatibilism requires uncreated beings.
So being uncreated isn’t necessary to libertarian free will, in my opinion. Whereas Mormons are the only Christian group that can coherently believe in compatibilism.
Amazing post. I like how you articulated what makes free will work. I would like to see more posts like this in the future.
I’d like to believe that moral laws are ultimately not random, and that there is some reason for them. In other words, I don’t like the idea that morality is what it is because God said so and, had God decided to say differently, morality would have been different. I also don’t like the idea that moral laws are sort of randomly generated along with the universe (the way some folks speculate that physical laws are) and that approach has the additional problem of requiring metaphysical baggage.
I’d like to think my explanation of morality avoids both of these pitfalls: the arbitrary nature and the metaphysical machinery. There is a simple, binary choice: do you will to exist or not? If so, then the rest of morality unfolds as a consequence from that desire for existence which, to reach its fullest expression, requires that you acknowledge and even cherish the existence of other selves. If not, well then morality has no real claim upon you because you are electing to opt out and become amoral, like an inanimate object.
But the key is that once you choose to exist more fully, you can’t choose for some different system of moral laws. It’s implied by the very desire to exist. This is what I mean by an existential basis for morality: you get to choose to participate or not, but once you’re in the rules are determined by your very desire to participate.
(FWIW – This is basically my version of Simone de Beauvoir’s similar approach in The Ethics of Ambiguity.)
Thanks for the awesome reply. I’d actually never heard of causal pluralism before, so I’m very happy that my post is working already on at least one level: I’m learning important new information. The first paper I’ve read (not quite done yet) is by Peter Godfrey-Smith, and he cites plenty of other papers so I think I’ll get a good grounding with this entry point, but if you have another suggestion I’d love to hear it.
It would be premature for me to say what impact this might have on the theories I’ve outlined, so I’ll let that pass for now, but I’ll be thinking and reading and mulling it over.
“There must be some spark of volition at the heart of our essence that is intrinsically free and which simply wills.” Agreed!
The only libertarian free will that makes moral sense (where our future progression/digression is not based on luck of the draw) relies on such a self-determining will, but remains libertarian by introducing unnecessary randomness into the equation (such as random thought generation before making the choice).
And since introducing this randomness unnecessarily creates conflict with the concept of God foreknowing with certainty, and because I have no other reason to throw out the idea that God can foreknow with certainty, I accept compatibilism as the most likely model for free will. Here too, there must be an original uncreated will / uncaused mind for ultimate free will to exist. I agree with Adam that because of this we are the only Christian group that can coherently believe in free will and a God that can foreknow with certainty–a position that allows us to satisfactorily and logically put the freewill debate to rest if we choose to accept it, and I find that pretty cool.
It sounds like your referring to a very similar concept of causal pluralism that Adam Miller referred me to. I’m skeptical, however. First of all, if God creates us as miniature first causes that seems to contradict Mormon doctrine about our ultimate origins. Why, having gotten rid of creation ex nhilo, would we immediately try to bring it back?
It also doesn’t really seem very much like what we usually mean by “creation”. If God creates our natures when He creates us, then we’re back to the same old problem of having our final state determined by the initial state. Even if you allow for the original nature to be changed, you’re not actually creating “elbow room” (Dennett’s term) for free will. Computer code that can modify itself might look like freedom, but it’s a mirage.
So God would have to merely invoke some kind of atomic entity into existence and endow it with absolutely zero characteristics. I think that’s compatible with my argument (so you would be technically right that “being uncreated isn’t necessary to libertarian free will”), but it seems to unnecessarily contradict Mormon doctrine without adding anything in exchange.
In any case, you seem to be agreeing with the ultimate idea that we have to be in some sense undetermined in order to be free, and being uncreated is one simple way to get undetermined. It might be overkill from a strictly logical standpoint, but if Mormons already believe it then why not go ahead and take the conception of freedom that comes along with it?
Nice, Nathaniel. I’ve borrowed the term here, but I give my own pretty expansive account of causal pluralism (by way of Bruno Latour) in my recent book Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology. Its short and I recommend it to see exactly what kind of thing I have in mind.
How would your concepts of “free will” and “deity” compare with Blake Ostler’s? If you both sat down and talked would you tend to agree or disagree?
I view the idea of Pascal’s Wager from this perspective.
“In any case, you seem to be agreeing with the ultimate idea that we have to be in some sense undetermined in order to be free.”
Depends on what you mean by undetermined. I can conceive that if one could map my character perfectly enough, they would know that ultimate endpoint towards which the arc of my being ineluctably trends, and that would still be a kind of freedom. I am free to be what I am.
I’m not sure, but your position seems to separate out identity and character too much from being, treating it as a kind of accessory or accoutrement. But while I admit that character can evolve, ultimately I want character to be what you are, not something you have.
For the sake of clarity, and not to be confrontational, but that’s a pretty exact statement of the view that I repudiate. If I’m free to be what I am, then I’m not free at all because whoever created that initial character is ultimately pulling the strings. If, on the other hand, my character is something that was at some point “a kind of accessory or accoutrement”, then we’re talking. In that sense, there’s an aspect of me that predates the character and that can, in theory, mold the character into anything it pleases. So character isn’t predetermined.
I like that model because it matches what we understand about mortality. We existed before this life with no physical body. We inherit the physical body and it comes with a lot of biological and environmental baggage that I think has nothing to do with our soul. But, over time (and depending on Christ’s grace) we can perfect that body and along with that process convert it from merely a tool to an essential aspect of our identity. As post-resurrected beings, our bodies will be part of our selves.
I think that’s basically the same process that has happened before in transitioning from intelligence (a volitional spark) to spirits (having a spiritual body, perhaps). God assisted us in this transition and so in a sense gave us our character, but that character can ultimately be made subject (in theory, in practice we all failed) to our uncreated, undetermined, radically free volition.
So, I guess I’m saying that ultimately character is “what you are, not something you have”, but that’s the endpoint to a process that starts with character as “a kind of accessory or accoutrement”.
What do you think?
I debated Blake Ostler on Times And Seasons in the comments years and years ago. I remember not agreeing with him, and I remember getting whipped. :-)
I’ve changed a lot since then, however, so I really couldn’t say how much our thinking would be in line or not in line. I’d have to brush up and read more to give you a good answer.
If I’m free to be what I am, then I’m not free at all because whoever created that initial character is ultimately pulling the strings.
Unless no one created that initial character because I am uncreated.
The problem with your view (and I’ll be the first to admit that the alternate view I’m advancing here has huge problems too) is that it makes the choice to adopt the initial character meaningless. It can’t be adopted for a reason because it would require character to have reasons. So the character I posses is basically arbitrary.
@Nathaniel. To me character and will are inseparably connected. Isn’t what I will evidence of my innate character? How can I will without my character.
So if we are arguing for an uncreated will, it seems to follow that we should argue for an uncreated initial character. Or if you only argue for an uncreated capacity to will that can then function once character is inserted, I think God once again becomes ultimately responsible for determining the chain of what you become.
I prefer to think of the character as uncreated, with an uncreated will and capacity to actively will once that entity is given an environment to act.
SteveF and Adam G-
Wait, is that your position or mine? I’m kind of ambivalent about it. I think it’s important that there is some atomic kernel of the self that is uncreated and simply wills to exist (or not), but I don’t really have a firm opinion about the stuff that builds up around that kernel and how it gets to be there.
Again: I think mortal life is a good illustration. Your body can have a huge impact on your character in the short run (e.g. being hangry) or in the long run (e.g. anything from inheriting lousy genes for self control to suffering traumatic brain injury). So a lot of what we think of as character is arbitrary. So what? Sometimes we get attributes foisted on us externally, and in the short run that compromises our character, but I just don’t really think that matters because I don’t think character at-a-point-in-time is (intrinsically) morally significant.
Think about it this way: imagine that character at a point in time (e.g. “are you a patient man right now?”) is like position in physical space. If you take the derivative of position with respect to time, you get velocity, which seems much more important. After all, if Bob inherits a genetically sunny disposition and Sue suffers traumatic brain injury that alters her behavior and makes her hostile, what can we determine about their relative moral standing? Nothing. But if Bob inherited a naturally sunny disposition and has worked to cultivae it (e.g. positive velocity) and Sue has this nasty disposition and doesn’t care (e.g. negative velocity) then that seems more important.
But we can go farther and take the derivative of velocity with respect to time and consider acceleration. Maybe Bob and Sue are working equally hard to improve (same positive velocity), but Bob’s velocity is constant (zero acceleration) and Sue is slowly increasing her efforts (positive acceleration). Well, now Sue seems to be morally superior in this aspect.
Note how far away from character we are at this point. And that’s why I included you (SteveF) in the reply: the connection between character and will stops being all that useful when we realize that we can have wills about our will (preferences over preferences, as an economist would say). I’m not a kind person, but I wish I was makes sense, and it’s really an expression of desiring to have different desires. What’s more, it’s even logically comprehensible to say I’m not a kind person, I don’t want to be a kind person, but I wish I did care about that. I don’t think people generally go past 2 or 3 levels of meta, but the point I’m making is just that concern for character at a point in time seems misguided.
Instead, you start with character and derivate will to change character, and then maybe even will to change the will to change character. And maybe it’s an infinite regress, but I actually like to think that what you’re really doing is approaching the root variable: effort. To extend the physics metaphor, once you’ve got acceleration you can plug in f = ma (force = mass X acceleration). Say “mass” is the starting character from genetics, the environment, or whatever and once you control for that you get f. Force. How hard are you working? Or, in other words, how strong is your desire?
I think that’s what fundamentally matters, and I don’t think it is equal to character. I think it *causes* character (over time). Will is all that matters, I think, and character unfolds from will with a lot of additional random noise added as well.
I see no reason to separate ‘will to change’ out from character. In fact, I doubt there is any such thing. No one changes themselves because they enjoy changing themselves. People change who they are because they desire something else. But what you desire is character. And will without desire is impotent. It is Burridan’s Ass, without hunger and without hay.
I see what you are saying about external factors influencing the way our character appears. What you are calling character, I would call personality. Our personality in mortality can be influenced in various degrees by genes, environment, and other external factors, but there is also an internal core that roots in our spirits/intelligence that likewise effects our personality and ultimate will. To me any negative external influences are simply part of the opposition test of mortality that tests the innate core portion of you that is eternal. This innate eternal portion is what I call character, and to me ultimate judgement/progression/digression is based entirely on how much our choices are attributable to this core character.
If an initial core character does not exist previous to God coming into an individual’s life, then there is nothing that can cause an individual to will or desire one thing over another attributable to that individual. And if then God has to give you that initial portion of you, He then becomes ultimately responsible for your desires, good or evil.
Thanks for helping to get some clarity around terms like “character”. I think I just have a much more limited idea of what is really innate. I imagine the an individual to be sort of composed of layers. The outer layer is the physical body. Inside that is the spirit. Inside that is intelligence, and only the intelligence is innate.
And I don’t think that intelligence really has character. It’s just an atomic, indivisible iota of identity that can either exert itself to exist more fully or less fully, and that’s basically all it does.
I think that this intelligence became the kernel of a spirit, and that the spirit had a whole wide range of actions and behaviors that were not possible to the intelligence, but that are essentially driven by the intelligence as it acts out through a series of indirect decisions, it’s decision to exist more or less fully. (Or, perhaps, to participate more or less fully in existence.)
What I mean by “indirect decisions” is the simple observation that we do not become more charitable (for example) by directly willing ourselves to be charitable. We become more charitable by enacting charitable behavior and then, over time, this repeated behavior alters us and makes us more charitable. It seems to me that all progress for human beings takes this indirect form. We want to have an attribute, but we gain it not by approaching it directly, but by acting out behavior that will nurture it in our hearts.
In any case, the spirit provided a plethora of opportunities for different kinds of interaction and behavior, but the beating heart was always the intelligence and the fundamental question always the same: participate in being or do not.
Then along comes a physical body and the process is just repeated. We now have even more stimulus, even more temptation, even more opportunity for growth, but fundamentally we’re still just practicing the same decision we always have: how much effort do we want to put into existing?
All along the way, I would use “character” to describe the status of the whole being (intelligence + spirit before life, or intelligence + spirit + body during life). I don’t think “character” can really apply to an intelligence because the intelligence is pure will. It doesn’t have habits or traits or anything like that.
So that’s my model. Can you tell me more about yours? You say that there is a character that determines our personality and will. Where does it come from? Can it change? Can we alter our own character, in your view?
‘Cause, while I’m here, I would say that the whole purpose of religion is to do just that: to replace at the most fundamental one set of desires for another. This is why I have a hard time accepting the idea that desire is equivalent to or determined by character, which is innate and unchangeable. I am a disciple of Christ because I don’t trust my own desires or my own character, and because I long for Him to replace them. Either slowly, in tiny increments, as I obediently follow commandments and repent or occasionally in dramatic steps when I am given a new heart. But, for me, the point is that religion exists to supercede desire.
The best and most refined desires of my heart are still only shadows of what I believe is possible. I can’t follow God because I desire to what He has because I can’t even conceive of what it might be. How can I desire what I can’t imagine? No, I follow in faith because I believe that, whatever those desires and appetites that come with godliness may be, they are superior.
Do you see what I’m getting at? If religion is just the acting out of our best desires, what’s the point? I can do that on my own. I need and depend on God because there are desires out there I can’t conceive of and, more still, would probably reject if they were proffered to me now in fearful ignorance.
Wow… I write too much.
No problem on the length, the more information the better. I can tell you more about my model, but I want to make sure I finish understanding yours first, so I can point out where I think we may differ.
A few things. “I think that this intelligence became the kernel of a spirit…” How so? It developed from a kernel (intelligence) into a spirit? Or the kernel (intelligence) was housed in a spirit body, presumably by God?
And, “the intelligence is pure will”. If intelligence is will, doesn’t will by definition imply want/desire? If so, what is the desire (will) of an intelligence in your model? And if it has desires, what makes this different than character?
I guess you did mention at least 2 possible desires/choices of an intelligence – to live more fully or not to live. Yet your model as I understand it seems to imply intelligence is only one thing, what differentiates the intelligence that wants to live versus the intelligence that wants to opt out?
I’m not firmly committed to either, and it might be a bit of both. The latter seems more in line with teachings about our pre-mortal existence, however.
I don’t think it does. I just mean that it’s an agent possess of free will, and with an immutable question: exercise will / exist / grow or be passive / exist less fully / shrink. The agent gets to decide based on nothing but its own existential decision. It’s not motivated by desires or other attributes, but stands naked before the decision and simply chooses to choose… or not.
The choice that it makes. Nothing else. Of course, this could actually be complex if you add a time element (an agent which oscillates between fervent striving to exist and periods of lethargy vs. one which is consistent), but the point I’m making is that the agents are not acting out some set of attributes they possess or responding to their own values or desires. They are creating their own values through their choices.
“The choice that it makes. Nothing else.” I think this is the primary problem with your model, at least to me. If there is nothing in the original intelligence that differentiates it from another intelligence as to the choices it makes, thus “creating their own values” and subsequently, character (if I understand correctly) – then differences can only be attributed to either external influences or randomness. There is no good reason for why Christ became a God, while Lucifer became a devil–at least not a reason that can ultimately be attributed to each of them. Without just and ultimate accountability for choice (that creates character, that in turn influences other choices) morality fails.
This logic doesn’t make sense to me. What you seem to be saying is that: If there isn’t some thing that causes the agent to act a certain way, then something must cause it to act a certain way: either external influence or randomness. That seems like a logical contradiction.
Just try to imagine that an agent were to make a choice that was not caused by external influence or randomness. If you rely on that agent’s character you’re begging the question since character has to come from somewhere. If the agent didn’t choose it, then the agent is subject to random chance or external influence. If the agent did choose its own character, than you’ve stumbled back onto my model: where the agent acts of its own volition.
We are each our very own unmoved movers.
To me, that’s the whole point of believing that we’re fundamentally uncreated.
Okay, I think I understand the basics of your model now. I agree with your thoughts in the OP that all of our models are going to be wrong, but we hope to create models that can be useful. So I am aware that when we discover the full truth, this conversation will probably look silly, but I think think it still can be somewhat beneficial nonetheless.
In my model intelligence is the comprehending agent, and spirit is the truth that can be comprehended. Intelligence can be thought of as a seed, and spirit, a cell; and when the seed enters the cell it can then learn and comprehend that cell. In this model there are a finite amount of base truths in the universe, and these truths are the atoms that when strung together in complex networks create the fabric of the infinity we call existence. There is a spirit cell type that accords with each base truth, and likewise an intelligence type that accords with each spirit truth. Intelligences (capital “I”), or eternal minds that constitute individuals, are composed of a variety of these intelligence seeds organized as a single entity. There are an infinite number of Intelligences (agents), and the organization of these are random such that all possible organizations exist, and these organizational structures have no beginning and remain static until being embodied in spirit for the first time.
“If you rely on that agent’s character you’re begging the question since character has to come from somewhere. If the agent didn’t choose it, then the agent is subject to random chance or external influence.” I disagree that this last statement must be true. The agent cannot be “subject” to random chance if there is no agent when/where the random occurs. In my model initial character is the very thing that is eternal. The reason I think this is important comes down to accountability. If you assume an agent (or the beginningless eternal part of the agent) develops the initial character that differentiates it from other agents and that then will lead him/her to its ultimate outcome, then the part of the agent that is eternal was subject to something outside of itself that determined its ultimate destiny. But if character is the very eternal part of the agent, then the ultimate outcome is attributable to the eternal agent. In the first instance, I don’t think you can argue just moral accountability, but in the second, any and all action/choice taken by the agent is attributable to something that was eternally part of him/her and so the agent is ultimately morally responsible for these choices.
“If there isn’t some thing that causes the agent to act a certain way, then something must cause it to act a certain way: either external influence or randomness. That seems like a logical contradiction.”
The logical contradiction starts in the first clause. Every action must have a cause, random or determined (and if determined, internal or external). Therefore I would argue that the premise that “there isn’t something that causes [an action]” is a logical fallacy.
“I just mean that it’s an agent possess of free will, and with an immutable question: exercise will / exist / grow or be passive / exist less fully / shrink. The agent gets to decide based on nothing but its own existential decision. It’s not motivated by desires or other attributes, but stands naked before the decision and simply chooses to choose… or not.”
This creates more problems than it solves. Morality–things being right or wrong–and desert–consequences being tied to our understanding of their rightness and wrongness and our intending one or the other–is more central to scripture and Mormonism than beliefs about intelligence or coeternal existence as agents.
Honestly, I don’t even see how what you are proposing is possible. How can an agent choose something it doesn’t want? How can I will to grow without wanting to grow? In fact, I’d say that willing and wanting are the same thing–will can’t exist without an end. I must will something to will.
Now, it may be that any account of where we come from gets incoherent if you push it back far enough. Either we’re saying that their are agents that will to grow and they just do, they’ve always willed that, that’s their nature and its just a given, or else we’re saying that their agents that have just chosen to will to grow and the reasons for it our inexplicable. Either way, we’re up against something that we can’t explain or understand. That being so, though, I don’t see why one account would be more attractive than the other.
In your favor though is one of the traditional accounts of the Adam and Eve story, where they have to make a choice that has great moral consequences but where they aren’t considered moral actors, because that’s what their choice is–to be moral actors or not.
In my favor is that this traditional account has widely been considered unsatisfactory.
I have forgotten to add that I thoroughly appreciate what you have to say on the role of personal theology as a piety.
Thanks for sharing your model, and there are definitely aspects of it that resonate with me. But there’s a fundamental concern I have with it. If every possible arrangement of intelligences exist as Intelligences, then it seems that my identity is outside my control. This, to my mind, means that I’m not truly accountable for my actions in the same sense in which someone is not accountable for being born with red hair.
I realize it’s tricky because if you’re saying that the Intelligence was never created there’s no temporal before and after and so in a sense you can say that their identity is coeterntal with their fundamental attributes and from this equivalence try to find accountability.
But even if the identity is *temporally* coextensive with the core attributes, it’s not *logically* coextensive with the core attributes. We’re still locked into a predetermined course based on whatever identity we have, and there’s nothing we can do about it. You have an innate, changeless nature and that’s just tough luck if it’s a deficient one. To me, this seems like missing all the real potential and possibility of Mormon cosmology and is basically identical with Calvinism. Whether God creates us ex nhilo with innate nature or whehter we’re uncreated with innate nature if it’s innate and unchangeable nature than there isn’t any free will in a genuine sense. Calvinists have free will to live according to their natures, but we reject that as not truly free will. Your model seems to be morally equivalent, you’ve just doubled down on the identity = nature equivalence by making it eternal instead of ex nhilo.
That’s not enough for me. I want the freedom not to act out my own nature, but to choose my own nature as an act of will.
I would agree. But my model doesn’t say there isn’t something that causes an action. It says there isn’t something else (something external) that causes an action. I realize that you are saying the same thing, but I reject the identity = character / nature equivalence. To me, you’re actually describing a kind of external cause. The will (the choosing agent) is accepting as input its nature and choosing based on that input. The will is therefore merely a computer processing input according to pre-determined rules. This is not free will, and–as I argue above–it means the agent doesn’t really exist in a way that is ontologiclaly distinct from its environ. It’s merely a conduit for causation. In order to be truly free and to truly exist, the agent must be capable of radical, libertarian freedom.
That’s what I’m describing: an agent that is capable of making decisions based neither on randomness nor on external factors, but based purely on internal factors.
I think the real crux of our disagreement is that you label “character” as an internal factor, and I see it as external because it is logically (but not temporally) prior to identity.
To reiterate my whole point in one sentence: acting out a script (character) that I didn’t choose isn’t enough for me. I want to write my own script.
(Important corollary: without Christ, I can’t implement this desire.)
I’m not sure what problems you’re referring to. I readily ascent that scripture spends more time talking about practical ethics and less time talking about intelligence or coeternal existence as agents, but that’s not surprising or discomfitting to my theory. The scriptures don’t talk about quantum mechanics, either. Does this mean we should doubt them? Or decry a proposed connection between the two?
It’s so interesting to me that you posed this question right after your observation about practical ethics in the scripture, because I think the first paragraph answers the second. How do you choose something you don’t want? You act obediently until your wants change. Isn’t that, in a nutshell, the whole point of religion both temporally and in the eternities? If we already had righteous desires we wouldn’t need commandments, would we?
Changing our desires is not an impossibility or a curiosity or a novelty, it’s the essence of our religion. And it is why the scriptures focus on practical ethics rather than abstract theory: because it’s through the indirect mechanism of action (i.e. “choosing”) that we change our desires and thus our character.
It is inexplicable by any referent other than itself. That’s not a defect. That’s the whole point. For you to explain that an agent chose X relying on anything other than “because the agent chose X” is to threaten ultimate free will. If the agent chose X because the agent wanted X, then the agent is only free if the agent also chose to want X. If not, the agent is merely an automatan acting out instructions over which it has no control.
So great, now we’re saying the agent can choose to want X. But what motivates that choice? Does it also have a desire to to want to choose whether or not it wants to choose X? You see the infinite regress problem clearly now. But it’s not a semantic trick. Preferences over preferences are real and legitimate human experiences. Sometimes we want something, and sometimes the thing we desire is a desire.
Ultimately, however, we have to come to rest in one of two locations: either outside the self or inside the self. The ultimate source of all desire / character / nature has to be either something we choose or something we do not.
If it is something we do not, if it is just an immutable characteristic as SteveF proposes, then free will is an illusion. If it is something we do choose, then we have arrived at my model: the agent wills because it wills. No other explanation is possible because any other explanation would push the explanation to external factors and invalidate free will.
This atomic decision is the kernel of our identity and is the irreducible, binary decision upon which free will rests.
I don’t think it’s hard to explain at all, except insofar as “explain” you mean “find some cause other than itself”. This isn’t incomprehensible, it’s just unique.
Understanding is, in every other case, about looking backwards in the chain of causation. Z happened because of Y, which happened because of X. That’s your instinct: explain by looking at what happened before. (Not necessarily chronologically before, but at least logically before.) Well, I’m trying to show you where the chain ends. Where it stops. And, since this is the termination, if you apply the standard heuristic of looking for something that comes before it, you get an incomprehensible result.
But that’s not because the situation is actually unfathomable. It’s just unique. There’s no cause for the agent to choose to exist / choose to choose / will to will other than the agent’s own choice. That’s because the agent is a fount of causation. This is where causal chains originate.
I think this is perfectly comprehensible in that sense. You can just use an analogy that causation is like electric current that animates the universe, and I’m describing to you a generator but you keep looking for the batteries or a plug.
To be clear, in my model I accept that nature/innate character can and does change over time. That the wicked one seeks and often succeeds in taking away light and truth (intelligence and spirit) when we sin, but through God and Christ and the Atonement all spirits are also susceptible to enlargement (gaining and more perfectly organizing light and truth).
I think the main difference in our models, as you mention, lies at the very beginning. If you accept that the actions of the agent are not randomly caused or determinedly caused externally, then they are determinedly caused internally–which it sounds like you agree with.
What I think you have failed to explain is how those initial actions (where in your model the agent chooses character) differ from agent to agent. Without external influence in the game yet, if 2 agents/Intelligences are exactly the same, and they choose different characters, then it can only be attributed to chance. If you argue it is not chance, then their must be something that fundamentally differentiates the two Intelligences. So which is it in your model? Is it chance that differentiates two intelligences, or is there a fundamental difference from the eternal beginning? It can only be one or the other.
For sake of ease, it would be helpful if you explained in your model what foundationally separated Jesus from Satan. What was the root cause of one attaining the glory of a God, and the other falling into darkness?
SteveF beat me to the punch, but I’ll state things in my own way in the hope of influencing the discussion in a way that makes sense to me. If free will is irreducible, then one cannot ascribe any reason to a choice. The question, “Why did entity X choose to be and entity Y choose to not be?” is unanswerable, even by God. I find that unanswerability troubling, as it he only mathematical model we have for such behavior *is* randomness. And if free will is randomly oriented, then this universe sucks.
Thanks for interjecting. (It’s nice to know others have read this far.) I think you concern is a perfect way for me to better explain my position to you and also to SteveF.
The problem is, I think, that you have a fundamental misapprehension of what randomness entails. When we say that something is random, the only thing that means is that we don’t have enough information to predict the outcome with certainty. Randomness is a statement about what we know. It’s not a statement about how the event transpires.
The clearest example of this is a coin toss. Everyone uses coin tosses as the ultimate example of a random event, but researchers investigating the issue built a machine that could easily flip heads every time.
In other words: a coin flip looks random, but that’s just because we’re dumb. If we had all the info (mass of the coin, magnitude, direction, and duration of the force applied, etc.) the illusion of randomness would disappear.
Now, quantum randomness does appear to be irreducible and therefore more than a byproduct of mere ignorance, but the important point here is that just because we can’t predict or explain an event via reference to some external cause doesn’t mean it’s just a crapshoot.
From our perspective as outside observers, the difference between Satan and Jesus might be as random as a coin toss, but that doesn’t mean that the fate of the universe was decided by a roll of the dice. It doesn’t mean that Jesus and Lucifer are interchangeable, or that we are interchangeable with Jesus or with each other. It just means that Jesus, Lucifer, and each of us make our own decisions ultimately without recourse to any external factor, including notions of “personality”, “character” or anything else. We do what we want to do because we want to do it, not because of our preferences, not because of our desires, not for any other reason. This looks random, but that shouldn’t actually be troubling if we understand that randomness is–at least in every case other than quantum mechanics–purely an artifact of ignorance.
I don’t think apparent randomness solves the issue, but rather highlights it further. Apparent randomness is not truly random because when it comes down to it, it is actually calculable and therefore determined. Although the variables may be too complex to easily calculate the outcome, and thus the outcome superficially appears random, in reality the outcome is the result of all the complex variables of input into the system.
Therefore, if you are arguing that Satan and Christ’s differing paths are only apparently random, then you are arguing that there are fundamental and complex variables that differ from the beginning. Since it is only apparent randomness, there exists a causal chain of inputs, and if those inputs are exactly equal, the outcome is the same. Since Christ and Satan’s outcomes are not the same, and we agree the moral root differences are not attributable to external influence/variables, it follows that the internal variables were not equal in the beginning.
Lastly, “We do what we want to do because we want to do it”. This is my position as well. I am not sure why you say the exact opposite immediately following: how are wants/preferences/desires distinguishable from one another here?
I am just trying to show you were I believe I see holes in your logic. I hope I’m not being offensive in doing so. Are my comments fine?
Nathaniel, thanks for the reply. I hate to do this to you, but it appears you have a fundamental misapprehension of randomness. Computational complexity is only one useful metaphor but it falls short in many instances. A more widely accepted definition of randomness is algorithmic incompressibility. In other words, something is random if it cannot be significantly compressed using an algorithm. (Think of a string of numbers representing a computer file – if there are patterns then an algorithm can be devised to reduce the string into less information losslessly.)
Additionally, SteveF makes an excellent counterpoint in 38. If will isn’t causal, then one cannot answer “why?” regardless of *how* it’s not causal. This is a real sticking point for me, philosophically. I don’t find much satisfaction in an existence where no explanation can be given for ultimate success or failure.
I apologize for assuming that you were unfamiliar with randomness, but I think what you’ve revealed in your most recent post is how widely divergent the definitions can be. Lack of predictability is I think the older and more general intuition behind the concept (dating back to the 1800s) whereas the definition you propose (while certainly correct) is more technical, narrow, and recent. The point I was trying to illustrate was simply that what we think of as randomness in general can be purely an epistemological perspective. Therefore, the appearance of randomness alone need not necessarily alarm us.
Will is causal, but it’s not caused by something else. Will is, at a fundamental level, self-causing. This is the only explanation that escapes the argument I outlined involve meta-desires. (See the next post for more info.)
That “next post” is going to go up on my blog later today because I’m creating a couple of graphics to illustrate my point and don’t think those will display nicely in the comments. I’ll link when I’ve got it up.
Nathaniel, no worries. Again, thanks for the reply and clarification of your intended point. It seems to me that you’ve now retreated into tautologies (e.g., We do what we want to do because we want to do it.) which, though defensible, does not offer much insight into the structure of will. What I get from you now is that will is an amorphous aether-like entity that is subject only to itself in a non-observable deterministic way. I mean thanks, but that doesn’t tell me much…
I look forward to your next post.
If “unmoved mover” is a tautology, then perhaps I have. In my view, uncreated wills are all unmoved movers. We are, therefore, of the same species as God in that sense.
My post is nearly complete, but it will probably be a couple more hours before I can post it, alas.
The real world is so demanding.
Are you still planning on providing a link to your next post?
Your post has a lot of different points but it is rather unconstrained because you are assuming that we intuitively know certain things about morality, will and causation. In the post and comments you derive a morality of effort, you derive the relative non-existence of choosing not to be moral ( or of choosing not to exist), and much more to boot.
I would argue that to adequately worship in our time, means to be too humble to use folk psychology and to downplay creation and the universe as we experience it. Here are a couple examples of sentences that I think are on a misguided track.
1. We must struggle all our lives wrestling meaningfulness from the barren and unyielding soil of a chaotic world that fundamentally does not make sense…
2. We inherit the physical body and it comes with a lot of biological and environmental baggage that I think has nothing to do with our soul.
If I try to make connect any of these ideas about soul and will to persons that I know over the course of a lifetime and compare that to some notion of an eternal soul or will, I get confused very quickly.
A few simple examples. When does a body acquire and lose its will? Are you going to have some continuum model where children have an increasing will and old people in dementia have a declining will?
You seem to be using a model both of an eternal will and a will revealed temporally. How do make any sense of will and soul other than through what is revealed in this world which is very bodily contingent?
It is hard to know what you will count as evidence against your argument.
For example, why do you privilege will and action over experience in defining or describing existence. A being that can be tortured and experience pain, even if it is causally part of the undifferentiated mass with no choice or options certainly seems to me to fully exist, why do you feel otherwise?
It is also not clear to me when you are using will as applying to an intelligence versus a spirit versus a soul versus a human being right now. The whole notion of will and cause is tied up with time and before and after so that the notion is incoherent without specifying the when.
One simple example would be to ask whose will is involved in a person acquring a body? If each of these wills truly has options then each ancestor has control of the bodily existence of each later human. But does the new baby have to choose to exist at conception or just consent to the possibility to acquire a body? I’m never quite sure when you are talking about the world as we experience it and when you are not.
I’m also not sure how to connect your understanding means to love with people who believe the opposite of your premises.
Let’s take the example of a person who believes the purpose of life is to extinguish desire and will and become a thing. Are you really understanding them if you understand them as being in error or do you believe that you understand them and support them in that quest?
I think the case generalizes in that I don’t think that you would really accept arguments against your moral intuitions yet it doesn’t seem to me as accepting them as beings with will if you do not.
An example, what if I were to argue that God is an ironist like all the other artists these days and that the Sermon on the mount was ironic and showing us that we are hopelessly selfish and we should enjoy the world solipistically. You might think understanding would be less than fruitful in this case, but your theology of understanding seems to require that you engage with them sincerely.
To use your metaphor you are preaching to the choir. What good is a theology of understanding if it is only understood by the relative few that already agree with most of your premises and conclusions?
Here is another sentence that makes me wonder what precise type of thinking you are doing when you write sentence like this next one.
And I don’t think that intelligence really has character. It’s just an atomic, indivisible iota of identity that can either exert itself to exist more fully or less fully, and that’s basically all it does.
One explanation might be that you are worshiping by imagining what intelligences are and you are basically saying here is the way I look to worship what do you other people think. But you often do kind of apply some kind of analysis where you say that something you say is consistent with scripture or produces a more coherent model, etc.
I just can’t figure out why you think that reasoning you are doing is not completely bodily and limited to the current world. For example, you use the word “exert” to describe what intelligences do. Now, you might say that its used metaphorically, but I would reply that of course its metaphorical and all of our thinking is based on bodily metaphors that we have no reason whatsoever to believe apply to something like a pre-mortal intelligence. Binaries like internal and external for example seem completely constrained to our corporal experience of the world. You have a desire to speculate about free will as something that transcends deterministic laws but what experience do you have that leads you to believe that you can differentiate different layers of will and separate character and intelligence and spirit from body?
For example, if you ask yourself why we believe in free will and what we have free will about it seems to be nearly completely based on our body. We don’t typically believe we control things that we don’t perceive. Our experience of will develops from the everyday actions that we take.
It seems to me that you are trying to bootstrap this everyday notion of causality to “intelligences” that are mentioned in scripture and describe how they do or do not have properties and do or do not have causes that are determined.
Your toolkit seems to made up of common sense experience, mormon beliefs, philosophical and theological conceptions, literary allusions plus some scientific analogies and influences. This is all well and good most of us do likewise, but the confusing part seems to be that you inherently believe you are doomed to failure yet believe it is important to try while picking and choosing which tool in the toolkit you find most important in a way that seems completely ad hoc.
Take your calculus of moral standing with its various first, second and third order derivatives, that boiled down to effort. Well, again the term effort is a bodily metaphor that seems pretty darn first order to me. The effort that people take is notoriously tied up with the circumstances and inheritances they have. You didn’t even think you needed to try to convince anyone that effort wasn’t part of the environmental and spiritual baggage that you didn’t think mattered.
Furthermore your model of religion seems to operate something like a reform or finishing school where through obedience one has the bad desires driven out of one’s character. This seems to me a universe which sucks way more that Brian’s completely random universe. We acquire bodies to have wrong desires in order to eliminate them to somehow grow (another bodily metaphor) our intelligence. Seems like a pointless round trip.
It seems like an inordinately moralistic vision of life where experience and aesthetics and knowledge seeking are second to becoming perfect by having grace modify one’s desires.
The paradox for me is that you celebrate free will but then think that self-improvement absent the grace of God is weak sauce. If I don’t need God then why do I need religion. But if one does need God then why make all the big deal about free will? Its like telling your kids they are free to spend all the money they want and then give them a 10 cent allowance.
If you want your ideas to get better and if you have grand theories about free will, it would seem that they need to explain a much wider range of anthropological and scientific data on choice and morality.
This is the great challenge of being a Latter Day Saint in our time. Since we believe in universal truth then to fully worship God’s creation with our speculations they need to incorporate all physical laws and all we know about all people in all times and places. Anything less is something of an arrogant blasphemy.
the harmony of your Godhead sounds very much like “no more fundamental validity for differentiation between Tom and Sue.” at the point where we all attain this perfect state of being, how would “individual identity” remain meaningful?