Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IX, Free Will

Free will is one of those issues where you have to think deep and hard about your definitions. Many philosophers will subscribe to one definition, but not another, so sometimes the whole debate on whether we have “free will” revolves around semantics that you can’t do justice to in a single post, so I won’t try. However, it is fairly clear that Latter-day Saint theology not only makes space for (at least some version of) free will (except we refer to it as “agency” in our vernacular), but puts it at the cornerstone of our teleology. 

Scientifically, the most famous experiment that addresses the concept of free will is the so-called Libet experiment. While there’s some dispute, my understanding is that there is a soft consensus that, when you ask someone to make a random decision such as moving a finger, scientists can detect a buildup of brain signals that predicts whether they will “choose” to move the finger moments before they are consciously aware of deciding to move it, suggesting that what we think we are choosing is actually the result of non-conscious brain mechanics.   

Assuming that the technical aspects of the experiment are sound, there are still a lot of steps before we get to a “it’s all brain mechanics” conclusion (for example, the experiment begs the question of whether free will can operate subconsciously). Predicting responses from brain patterns is an exciting area of cutting edge research, but unless we get to the point where we can conclusively predict behaviors and thoughts based on our knowledge of synaptic arrangements and mechanics (which I highly doubt we ever will), neuroscience won’t ever be able to prove that free will is a myth, so like a lot of other issues discussed in this series it kind of comes down to your a priori suppositions. 

Whether or not one believes in free will as an intellectual matter, it seems that virtually all of us base our actions and feelings on the assumptions of free will. Occasionally I’ll bump my head on a cabinet door corner and will feel the completely illogical urge to slam it in anger as if to hurt it (and as a young child I did just that). It’s illogical because it makes no sense to get angry at an inanimate object that is only following the laws of physics. Similarly, if we take it as a given that there is no free will, and our actions are defined purely by the setup and mechanics of our synapses, in my view it makes just as much sense to get angry at people as it does to get angry at the door (there’s a perspective known as compatibilism that holds that you can have free will and have everything determined, but that’s one of those deeper semantics issues alluded to above; for the purposes of this post I’m assuming that they aren’t compatible).

Although we might feel the urge to be angry at the individual who killed our family, in a world where, say, the difference between killing and helping comes down to a carbon molecule being just close enough spatially to form a bond and connect a synapse that leads to the decision to kill instead of help the family (yes, decisions have many more biochemical reactions, but in principle the number of molecules involved doesn’t change the principle), it makes just as much sense to get angry at the boulder that fell on our family because of a similar mechanical process. I’ve read attempted justifications for, say, moral outrage in a mechanical, meat robot world, but they always come off as post-hoc attempts to justify not biting the bullet and dealing with the implications of not believing in free will, as opposed to a systematic argument built up from first principles. 

In the same sense that non-believers sometimes accuse believers of resting on comfortable fictions, I believe that most non-believers are willing to operate under logical outgrowths of beliefs that they see as fictional (whether they are aware of doing so or not), with the primary example here being free will. At the end of the day it is hard to completely  divest ourselves of non-naturalistic, or, dare I say, spiritual, beliefs. 


6 comments for “Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IX, Free Will

  1. I don’t know how the gospel works without some sense of freewill playing a part in it. It could be that that “part” is nothing more than how we respond to the love of God. Even so, it seems to me that an important aspect of the plan involves increasing our ability to act in righteousness–and so there has to be some kind of freedom of thought–at least–preceding those actions. Else how could our actions be judged as righteous? So there must be at least a minimal amount of wiggle room for freedom of thought–even though I don’t know how to get to the bottom of it.

  2. Free will debates are ridiculous. It’s like asking “do we really exist?”

    Agency is least understood. Agency is defined as- “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power “. Agency is a form or related to freedom. It does involve choice but most specifically it denotes the “power” of operation. The best antonym I have found for agency is “captivity”. Captivity, by that same dictionary is defined as- “held under control of another but having the appearance of independence”. Now, “free will” or free choice only happens if one truly has agency, or defined as the capacity to exercise power.

    As it relates, a person can only have true agency if they choose the right and are obedient to eternal divine law. This allows them the freedom to exercise according to their will. But, if they are disobedient they immediately see a deteriation of their agency and consequentially their free will. This is what is meant by being led into the captive chains of hell.

    Thus, free will is the decision marker of one exercising agency. True free will is tied to God’s will. Does this mean we are mere puppets then to God? No. This also doesn’t mean that God can know everything we do before it happens. The seeming paradox then if what is the cause of decision making remains. Is it purely mechanistic? No, it partly is, or has a value in our souls. The other part is the enigma of choice which can and does, operate unpredictably in certain circumstances. For example- If I play the guessing game of heads or tails, the guess is generated at random, or can be. Thus, the concluded answer or result too is a generated random event of which cannot be foretold. This is what makes us unique from purely mechanical constraints such as a computer program. When we live righteously and are free we live at the crux of decision ability or free will of the which we are truly able yo make choices from multiple outcomes not foretold or set in stone.

  3. People whose brains have a chemical imbalance, called Clinical Depression, often have more difficulty with impulse control than those without that additional problem. Understanding this made it easier for me to forgive a relative who got into trouble for soliciting sex from a minor via computer. He went to prison and when he came home he voluntarily gave up owning or using computers. He had the free will to enact that precaution –and did because it’s how he can control himself better–so he freely chose that.
    But this problem will always be how his brain reacts to impulse–at least without medication. That he has no free will to completely be over.
    That branch of the family is the one with genetic depression clinically and you can see the difference in how well they have not done
    compared to the other branches without it. This has brought home to me how true it is that one can’t always judge others correctly so we best love one another and leave the judging to God. It’s my opinion that my relative used the free will he has to help control what he has no free will about.

  4. Rob, you’ve got me thinking about some interesting propositions that arise from the scriptures–questions having to do with moral agency versus (shall we say) a political freedom of sorts. As you seem to imply–I don’t think the scriptures are always taking about precisely the same thing when treating one precept or another having to do with freedom and agency and whatnot.

    I’ve wondered at times if we have a tendency to confuse the idea of agency with the notion that we–as individuals–come onto the scene with a primordial will intact. While we don’t know for certain what our beginnings really look like–the idea that each one of God’s children possesses a unique consciousness of our very own–that is coeternal with God–goes a long way toward answering some difficult theological questions–one of those being the fact of agency itself.

    My sense is that the plan of salvation ultimately has everything to do with the expansion of the individual–such that he or she is ultimately freed from all constraints (enemies) and endowed with the power to act on an infinite scale–which is an infinite expression of agency.

    Having said that, I think there are two “agencies” involved in bringing about such an infinite condition. The first is, obviously, our own will or consciousness. And I think the idea of moral agency is tied to that aspect of our primordial selves. It doesn’t matter what kinds of external forces are applied to that particular agency there’s no way to force it to love what it does not love–such a venture is even beyond the power of Deity.

    The second agency is (IMO) that which God *adds* to our primal will. When God gives man his agency in the Garden of Eden–what he’s doing (IMO) is expanding our circumstances such that we have greater room to express our primal selves. I find it interesting the various degrees of embodiment are called “estates.” Not only is that word defined as a state of being–it also connotes ownership of property. And so what we have is a situation wherein our power to act is magnified by being placed in conditions that permit interaction with a larger portion of “real estate” so to speak–not to mention the gifts of perception that come with embodiment.

  5. Jack,
    I think I understand what you are saying. I look at agency as being tied more to freedom and peace of conscious coupled with, as you say, an ever expanding choice of good options and space to work with those options.

    I find it interesting that the “chains of hell” as spoken of so frequently in the Book of Mormon are spoken of as being like in a deep sleep spiritually and mentally. It’s a destructive force that limits ones happiness. Its in this context that I understand how Satan sought, and still does seek, to destroy our agency. He wants to bring us down into the captivity of spiritual death of which is the destruction of our agency.

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