A Paradox of Our Own

October 11, 2005 | 47 comments
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One of the more prominent strands of modern political philosophy is what has been called “luck egalitarianism,” which of course raises basic questions for Mormon theology. Luck egalitarianism comes in many forms and flavors, but the basic gist of the argument goes like this. Distributing the good things of this world on the basis of arbitrary social distinctions is unjust. It is wrong that one person should have a dramatically inferior life simply because he was born a particular color or into a particular social caste. The implication of this basic insight, however, is not meritocracy, i.e. the belief that people should be rewarded for their abilities and accomplishments. The reason is that native ability is itself an arbitrary factor. No one has really earned their innate mental or physical ability. Rather, such endowments are a matter of luck. Hence, they ought not to be the basis on which the good things of the world are meted out. Instead, social institutions should be constructed so as to ameliorate the negative effects of luck on human flourishing. The foregoing is a crude statement, but this is a blog post, so deal with it.

It seems to me that at the heart of the luck egalitarian position is the basic assumption that we start with certain innate abilities that are not the result of any morally relevant act on our part. In other words, the luck egalitarian argument requires some fairly strong notion of origins to get off the ground. This is where Mormon theology injects an interesting set of questions and problems.

On at least one reading of our theology, we are eternal intelligences who are of essentially the same species as God. All of us have existed from all eternity and will exist to all eternity. The difference between us and God is not a radical disjunction between creator and creature, but rather one of an astronomically huge gap in progress and intelligence. At this point, we get the uniquely Mormon conundrum of trying to understand why God is God and we are not. Put in another way, “If we have been around just as long as God, then why aren’t we God yet?”

It seems to me that there are two radically different answers to this question. First, we can say that nature is prior to agency. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God is simply a superior sort of person to us. He is inherently better than we are and this explains why he has progressed so much further than us. Second, we can say that agency is prior to nature. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God has made better choices than us. Which answer we give, it seems to me, has dramatic implications for luck egalitarianism.

If nature is prior to agency, then we are in essentially the luck egalitarian position. Certain abilities are simply a matter of the arbitrary structure of the metaphysical frame that we share with God. Indeed, God’s power and ability itself becomes an arbitrary result of the way that existence happens to be structured. On this view, God’s work to bring to past the immortality and eternal life of man can be thought of as analogous to the luck egalitarian’s approach to social institutions. It is an attempt to use agency to ameliorate the effects of blind chance.

On the other hand, if agency is prior to nature, then in a deep sense we are self-created entities. Who we are at the most basic level has been determined by our choices, and there is no origin where agency is not present. In other words, we deserve to be who it is that we are. This doesn’t imply a gleeful indifference to situation of others, nor does it deny that the circumstances of life play an huge — perhaps overmastering — role in creating social outcomes. It does mean, however, that our inherent abilities are not simply a matter of luck, but rather flow from morally relevant choices stretching back without beginning into the past. Furthermore, it changes who we view God’s work and his glory. Rather than seeing it as a heroic exercise in noblesse oblige by one arbitrarily given abilities by the structure of existence, God’s solicitude for our immortality and eternal life becomes an act of grace and generosity on the part of one who genuinely deserves his exalted position on the basis of the choices that he has made.

I don’t know which view — nature prior to agency or agency prior to nature — I ultimately subscribe to. It does seem to me, however, that we do have the good fortune to have a theology that gives us a set of philosophical paradoxes of our own to puzzle out.

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47 Responses to A Paradox of Our Own

  1. Richard on October 11, 2005 at 11:59 am

    The second position, that agency is prior to nature, seems the more attractive to me. Some reasons:
    1. We choose our own destiny — (2 Nephi 2:27)
    2. Our decisions lead to our abilities being increased or decreased (parable of talents)
    3. Although I can cope with temporary injustice (good people suffer), natural justice would seem to determine that ‘in the end’ people should get what they deserve

    Richard

  2. will on October 11, 2005 at 12:00 pm

    WRT the question of why God is ahead of us, it could be that he has always been ahead. That’s perfectly kosher in beginningless histories.

  3. Richard on October 11, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    Will — Perhaps I’m not understanding correctly, but that appears to me to be the same as Nate’s first explanation: that nature is prior to agency. In other words, God’s nature was better than our nature and always has been, even before we started making decisions and progressing.

  4. will on October 11, 2005 at 12:28 pm

    Richard, I guess it boils down to one’s interpretation of the word nature. Does it refer to the subject’s rate of progression, or to something else?

    Interestingly, even if we’re behind God and progressing at a slower rate, there’s really no sense in which his beginningless and endless history is better than ours. We’re all moving from an infinitely regressed state to an infinitely progressed state.

  5. Richard on October 11, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    But doesn’t it seem kind of ‘unfair’ to you that one person should start out ahead of someone else?

  6. J.R. Knight on October 11, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Section 93 states that without ‘independence’ or ‘agency’ there is no existence. I believe this would apply down to the most fundamental sub-atomic level, and at some point we were organized from something ‘acted upon’ to something which ‘acts’ — which would probably be spirit birth. But even as ‘acted upon’ we (it) would still have some degree of cognition (self-awareness?) and volition.

  7. Dave on October 11, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Nate, it seems to me that Jesus firmly rejected agency being prior to nature. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” was a question posed to him by his disciples. That’s only a serious question if nature is prior to agency (the man sinned prior to birth) and if parental sin devolves upon the children (the parents sinned so the child was punished prior to birth). By saying the man was born blind that the glory of God might be manifest, it appears to me that Jesus rejected both views.

    I think the whole “agency prior to nature” approach is flawed, as is evident, for example, in the various popular LDS explanations for the priesthood ban that relied on something or other happening in the preexistence as a justification for the ban — all thoroughly discredited after 1978. No bad luck for the priesthood anymore. Mormons are now priesthood egalitarians. Good for us.

  8. Jed on October 11, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    “If we have been around just as long as God, then why aren’t we God yet?”

    The question of course glosses over the old debate about just what “we” means in Mormon theology. Is intelligence the primal stuff of personality, as McConkie believed, or personality itself, as B. H. Roberts held? Something in us has “been around just as long as God,” but just what that is something is, no one knows for sure.

    Let us assume that McConkie is right. The part of us that existested from eternity is undifferentiated intelligence, and God shaped that spirit matter into individual personality. The implication here is that God’s personality is older than ours. God is already a personality when he helps form ours. If this is so, what does this position do to the debate about agency or nature?

    The split choice between nature and agency assumes we all start out at the same place. The question is really why does God get to the finish line first when everyone leaves the blocks at the same gun. But if God is an older personality, if he starts the race before all the rest of his creation, then he reaches Godhood first not so much because he is innately superior nor because he has made better choices. The reaches Godhood first because he has a head start.

  9. Nate Oman on October 11, 2005 at 12:42 pm

    Dave: I agree with you that the agency is prior to nature line of thought was enlisted to support the priesthood ban. I am not sure that the rejection of the ban necessarily is a rejection of the whole idea that agency is prior to nature. I have to confess that I am thoroughly confused by your exegesis of the Christ story. As I stated in the post, I am not sure which position I take (it most likely varies from time to time), but both of them seem to have their own odd implications.

  10. Nate Oman on October 11, 2005 at 12:44 pm

    Jed: I think you are right with regard to our equivocation regarding the term intelligence, although I tend to think of McConkie’s position as a kind of bastardized version of Orson Pratt. If we are going to go down the road of intelligence as spirit fluid, lets get serious about recasting our theory of God’s personality (this is what Blake Ostler does). At the very least, let’s find more opprotunities to use the phrase “spirit fluid.”

  11. lyle on October 11, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    Richard: What about Christ? He is our “spirit brother,” yet is someone more advanced than us…is that unfair also? or by agency did he ‘grow’ at a faster clip than us due to each individual’s choices?

  12. J. Stapley on October 11, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Nate, I guess I don’t understand the difference between the two options for explain the chasm between us and god. You say:

    First, we can say that nature is prior to agency. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God is simply a superior sort of person to us. He is inherently better than we are and this explains why he has progressed so much further than us. Second, we can say that agency is prior to nature. Under this theory, God is God and we are not because God has made better choices than us.

    In your second option we need to ask why god made better choices. As I see it, there are two options: 1) he is a “superior sort of person to us” or 2) all choices are random and he is the outlier.

    As this option (2) seems to contradict our beliefs on many levels, than we are left with option (1), which is the same as your original first option of nature prior to agency.

  13. Frank McIntyre on October 11, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    In terms of scripture, I would think a central one to the agency question is that all blessings come by obedience to the law upon which they are predicated. This suggests a strong role for obedience, and therefore, agency.

  14. Nate Oman on October 11, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    J.: The distinction rests on the assumption that choices are a different kind of cause than natures. One’s choices have moral significance while one’s nature does not. Maybe the distinction is wrong, but it does not seem obviously so. You are right that in both cases no further cause is offered for nature and agency respectively, but if agency and nature are different sorts of causes then this is probably not a problem.

  15. J. Stapley on October 11, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    Interesting, I’m not finshed yet with Ostler’s book, so I’m not sure that his would have the answer; is there anyone who has written about why we make the choices we make, if it is not for nature? At least in this life, it seems that our natures have a great effect on our agency.

  16. lyle on October 11, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    J. Stapely: Isn’t there a BoM cite to that effect, something about us being unable to choose unless we are “tempted” one way or another?

  17. Frank McIntyre on October 11, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Another relevant passage would be in Alma 13, which speaks of being called according to one’s good works, and makes reference to the pre-existence.

  18. J. Stapley on October 11, 2005 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t doubt that we have the ability to choose and that we need to be enticed. The question is why Christ chose so much better than we did? Why did He choose exponentially better, so much so that he was a God when we where merely pre-mortal humans?

    It seems like the answer to that question is that He was fundamentally better than us. I would be willing to consider other options if there are any.

  19. Rosalynde on October 11, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    Very nicely framed, Nate. Like you, I’m not sure which view I like best, and my preference at any given moment probably has a lot to do with context. It seems to me that the two variants perform different sorts of ideological work for us. Agency prior to nature seems more suited to rhetorical—that is, persuasive—tasks, and to narrative theology, the choosing protagonist being the engine of story. Thus we’d expect prophetic exhortations to righteousness and our master origin narratives like Garden of Eden and War in Heaven to take the agency prior to nature line—which, it seems to me, they usually do. Nature prior to agency, on the other hand, seems more suited to analytical tasks (primarily because nature is so much more susceptible to quantification than agency) and abstract theology.

  20. Daylan Darby on October 11, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Must (nature) the elements obey God, or do they choose (agency) to obey God?

    I think that by answering this you might get and insight into which is first, nature or agency.

  21. GeorgeD on October 11, 2005 at 10:11 pm

    “A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox….”

  22. Frank McIntyre on October 11, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    I would guess that our nature is largely composed of our agency. Thus we are what we will. And to will differently would be to be someone else. This is, I think, consistent with the scriptures. It allows that we do have a nature, but admits that there is no way that God (or anything) could come in from the outside and “act upon” that nature without destroying our identity. In this sense, those who are ahead of us are there because they chose better than us, and they did this because that is who they are.

    Also, I can’t find a paradox…

  23. Seth Rogers on October 12, 2005 at 1:41 am

    To respond to Nate’s original post, the question isn’t simply “why is God ahead of us?”

    The reference to “many noble and great ones” among God’s spirit children seems to indicate that we ourselves are not created equal at our most fundamental level. The implication seems to be that intelligences are not equal.

    However, my take on the scriptural sources is that each of those unequal spirits has an equal chance at salvation. Being “noble and great” doesn’t seem to make you any more or less likely to acheive salvation (see Lucifer and David).

    This brings to mind the parable of the talents. The sevants were entrusted with unequal portions (each according to his ability). But each had an equal shot at the Lord’s favor.

    Then there’s the parable of the laborers where the latecomers received the same wages as those who had been there all day. This directly challenges any attempt to define the Plan of Salvation as a strict meritocracy capped-off by grace.

    I know this doesn’t answer the heart of the original post. But these issues do seem to have some bearing on the discussion.

  24. J. Stapley on October 12, 2005 at 1:41 am

    I admit to being confused, Frank. I will agree that nature can be changed by agency (and the atonement). However, to say that God is who he is because he chose to be that way and then say he chose to be that way “because that is who [he is]” is circular. Paradoxic.

  25. Tatiana on October 12, 2005 at 3:04 am

    My answer is both yes and no. I think of it sort of the way galaxies and clusters of galaxies were able to coalesce from the almost perfectly uniform universe of matter and energy after the big bang. Even if we were all minutely the same to start with, even tiny differences in choice and experience can become greatly magnified in a short time. Choices are non-linear, like gravity, so that choices can have a snowball effect, in the same way that a tiny ripple in an otherwise uniform mass distribution can cause a lump to form, then a whole galaxy. It’s analogous to the butterfly effect from chaos theory where tiny differences in initial conditions can quickly turn into vast differences in end results. This is a feature of all non-linear systems like the universe. Again it’s analogous to a mustard seed, that from small beginnings can result huge changes.

    Or like Sri Prabhupada said, enlightenment is the work of an aeon, and it’s the work of a moment

  26. Tatiana on October 12, 2005 at 3:04 am

    By the way, this is an awesome question. Thanks for this post.

  27. Richard on October 12, 2005 at 4:00 am

    Lyle said:
    “Richard: What about Christ? He is our ‘spirit brother,’ yet is someone more advanced than us…is that unfair also? or by agency did he ‘grow’ at a faster clip than us due to each individual’s choices?”

    Yes I guess I would say that whatever Christ has attained to he has ‘earned’ through making good choices.

  28. ed on October 12, 2005 at 8:32 am

    I agree with J. Stapely, (and maybe with Frank). I don’t see any way to separate the idea of “agency” from “nature” in a coherent way. And unless we separate them, the question makes no sense.

    Given this, I think the answer is simply that the universe is not “luck egalitarian.” People are rewarded based on what they are (which is revealed and expressed in what they choose), and if you don’t like it, tough. You may think that that makes the universe inherently unjust, but there’s no sense whining about it, it cannot be otherwise.

  29. Richard on October 12, 2005 at 9:01 am

    Agency = power to choose
    Nature = what we are

    So for example, I exercise my agency by deciding to exercise; my nature changes (I get fitter). What’s the difficulty?

    It seems to me that our agency is ‘invulnerable’. By the I mean that we always have choices, even if we don’t like those choices, or they are difficult to make. On the other hand our nature is ‘vulnerable’, in that our actions, other people’s actions and just general stuff can change it.

  30. lyle on October 12, 2005 at 9:14 am

    Alternatively, there may be two or more types of agency.

    Many scriptures talk about how God has “given” man agency. This doesn’t reconcile with the idea of agency as self, only agency as choice. However, that doesn’t square with our having made the choice to accept the Plan of Salvation/Happiness/etc. The answer I’ve seen bandied about is that there are two types of agency, and the one that is “given” is more in the sense of the conditions necessary for choice to occur, i.e. the environment crafted to “tempt” (i.e. data points for us to evaluate) us so that we can make informed choices; while the other type is agency as self…i.e. our personality and nature that is essentially us.

  31. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2005 at 9:23 am

    J.,

    If you think what I am saying is circular, then it seems to me that you are claiming that it is a tautology. But a tautology is not a paradox. A paradox is A therefore not A. A tautology is A therefore A.

    So here is what I am saying.

    What is the essence of who I am? What is it about me that, if I change it, I would not be me? I would suggest that this essence is inextricably linked to our agency and our choices. Thus one cannot alter who we are as a chooser without destroying the essential part of us, making us somebody else. We must choose to move towards righteousness in order for it to be us that actually becomes good. Obviously, the atonement means we can get crucial help along the way,but the choice is still ours.

    So yes, Abraham is ahead of us because Abraham chose better than us and this choosing defines who Abraham is essentially. So it is his nature to make those righteous choices, but not some nature for which he is not responsible, but rather it is his nature to use his agency wisely and so be blessed for it. You cannot have Abraham’s nature, ie, Abraham’s willingness to obey, without ceasing to be you. Perhaps God could form a bunch of Abrahams, but none of them would be J Stapley, so that would hardly do you any good.

  32. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2005 at 9:28 am

    It sounds like I agree with Ed too.

  33. Rosalynde on October 12, 2005 at 10:06 am

    No, Frank, you don’t agree with Ed, because Ed is suggesting that agency is an effect of nature (“People are rewarded based on what they are (which is revealed and expressed in what they choose)”), whereas you’re insisting that nature is an effect of agency.

    You may be right that agency and nature are mutually constitutive—and I think you’re right that the scriptures, consisting mainly of prophetic exhortations to righteousness, emphasize agency as determinative of nature. But from an analytic point of view–that is, when you’re trying to explain behavior rather than persuade people to behave well—I don’t see how you can avoid the conclusion that agency is just an effect of a prior nature. How else to account for, say, mental illness, which profoundly compromises—and sometimes completely eliminates—the capacity to make moral choice? Unless you relocate the moment of causal agency to the pre-existence, and say that those who suffer from mental illness are reaping the consequence of a prior poor choice—that is, their nature is a result of a prior act of agency—but this seems a pernicious and profoundly UNscriptural line of reasoning.

    Alternatively, you can claim that “nature” does not include mental illness or any other fact of biology, genetics or personality that compromises the ability to choose. But this would seem to reduce the idea of nature so drastically as to render it nearly meaningless.

  34. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2005 at 10:35 am

    Rosalynde,

    Ed and I both think the two are inextricably linked. Your nature is, to a large extent, your agency. Neither of us, as best I can determine, attempts to prioritize them chronologically or causally. But if I am mistaken, I’m sure Ed can clarify.

    “whereas you’re insisting that nature is an effect of agency.”

    No, I don’t think I am.

    And yes, this “nature” I speak of is one’s eternal nature, not neccessarily related to any physical, biological, or environmental trait one observes here in mortality. No, mental illness is not, in my book, part of one’s essence or eternal nature. It is just part of terrestrial living (or mortal/temporal nature). It may or may not relate to what we did in the pre-existence, and if it does relate, it may be a blessing for obedience rather than a curse for evilness.

    “I don’t see how you can avoid the conclusion that agency is just an effect of a prior nature.”

    I happily agree that we cannot separate the two, but it is, in my book, odd to speak of one being “prior” to the other. We have some propensity to move towards truth, which is the definition of who we are, and therefore it is our nature. It is also what we express through our agency.

  35. J. Stapley on October 12, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    So, at the most fundamental level, Frank, do you think that the disparity between myself, Abraham, and Jesus is simply based on randomness? That is, I am who I am and they are who they are because someone had to be us?

  36. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    I am often unsure what people mean when they speak of “randomness”.

    If by randomness you mean something we don’t understand, well I’m quite sure I don’t understand. If by randomness you mean something that cannot be understood, then I doubt it because I think God could probably give you a pretty good answer.

    But I just am not sure it is coherent to ask, “why wasn’t I Abraham?” It is like asking why circles can’t be squares. If you were Abraham, you would not be you, you’d be another one of him. There would be no “you”. Hence I think we tie essence to agency.

  37. Rosalynde on October 12, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    Franks, thanks for responding. If your position is “nature is that part of us that chooses righteousness freely,” then I think you’ve simply redefined nature to mean something like what Nate meant by “agency,” thus, indeed, obviating the distinction.

    What you’re talking about seems to me much closer to the LDS concept of “divine nature” than any recognizable version of “nature” (which, of course, is perhaps the most plastic and fraught of any English word!).

    I’m curious, what’s an example of a moral choice that can be made without the impingement of physiology, cognition, or environment?

  38. Frank McIntyre on October 12, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    Rosalunde,

    Yes, I suppose it is because Nate was comparing us and God and the whole luck egalitarianism that relies on pre-birth thinking that I took the context to be divine or eternal nature, rather than temporal conditions. We know nothing of the temporal nature of God, or even if we did we don’t know that it is a useful concept. So for the comparison between us and Him to be meaningful it seems reasonable that we want to compare eternal natures.

    As for moral choices, I think even when moral choices are impinged by all sorts of factors, there is still a choice being made. Only God can truly judge how well that choice was made, given the mortal limitations that others cannot see. But at the judgment bar we will see as we are seen and so can fully appreciate where we did right and where we failed. The Light of Christ also helps in the here and now.

    Thus it is not that there is some particular choice that is seperate from mortality’s limitations, but rather there is a slice (big or small) of every choice that is us exercising our divine agency.

  39. Michael on October 12, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    Nate strikes gold again.

    Interesting to consider why this conundrum is so compelling with respect to some things and not others. In Nate’s formulation, it is primarily moral/spiritual: there’s something uncomfortable about stating that God is morally superior just because he happened to get a better nature in the nature lottery. That same discomfort makes it attractive to say that levels of spirituality/righteousness exhibited on earth follow from earlier progression. But I don’t have the same discomfort with saying that athletic skill is dependent partially on the genetic lottery or educational chances are a function of the social lottery.

    But in fact it’s not so easy to preserve the view that in the moral/spiritual sphere, at least, luck has no role and we are who we have chosen to be. First, it’s at least plausible that our chances for moral improvement also depends on the luck of our circumstances. We can always exert choice, of course, but different circumstances bring different choices, and we often think that the difference between a convert successully clinging to the iron rod and letting go is based on whether that convert is “lucky” enough to have good friends supporting him/her.

    Second, interactions between spirit and brain are mysterious. Someone who flies off the handle because of a chemical imbalance seems to be acting badly externally, and seems really to be full of anger internally, because of bad luck in the mental hygiene category. We can say that this is just an external cross the person has to bear, and that somewhere inside there is a spirit whose progression is not affected by all of this. But if we say that, then the view loses much of its explanatory power–for any two people, if one is “more advanced” than the other, we can never say for sure whether the former made better choices, or whether the latter is burdened with a more violent temper, for example.

    Third, the scriptures seem to teach quite clearly that, left to our own devices, our exercise of agency would in every case lead to self-created disaster: all are fallen, all are lost except for the Atonement. From God’s perspective, of course, there is nothing about the atonement that is mere chance. But from the perspective of the natural course of our agency, it is very much an intervention interrupting the otherwise natural course of our agency. So the pure “self-created man” option is not theoretically available to us.

    In each case, the natural answer to the apparent intervention of luck is to posit a divine providence that intervenes to prevent moral/spiritual progression from being held hostage by luck: We must believe that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to resist. We must believe either that God rations access to progress-promoting experiences according to desert or that the injustice of differential access to light and truth (not based on desert) that we presently experience will ultimately be righted.

    All of this puts God firmly in the role of preventing our eternal progress from depending on luck, at least in the long run. In other words, it puts Him in the role of ensuring a just judgment. It is to him that we owe the very possibility of a framework in which we can exercise agency to our redemption and in which happiness will be the end of our existence if we exercise that agency properly.

    As I see it, the alternatives are not progress depending on luck and progress depending on agency. Rather, the alternatives are God guaranteeing a just outcome and his abdication to luck. In either case agency is an “input” all the way along; the question is just whether there will be laws that guarantee that proper exercise of agency will yield eternal progression.

  40. Michael on October 12, 2005 at 6:45 pm

    Oops–

    I must have missed the last posts, which state some of what I was trying to say better than I did.

    On another topic, does the Book of Mormon commit us to believing that luck does, indeed, play a role in salvation? Recall that Mormon warns those who think that little children need baptism that, to put it mildly, their salvation might be affected if they are cut off in the thought.

    So take two people walking down the street, otherwise spiritually identical, happily agreeing with one another about the necessity of child baptism. Just before they both realize the error of their ways, a grand piano unexpectedly and unluckily falls on person A, killing him instantly. Meanwhile, person B thinks better of it and decides that children under the age of 8 are saved. A safe then falls on him. Isn’t Mormon saying that the state of these two unfortunates will be different, precisely because of the unlucky timing of A’s demise?

  41. Mark Butler on October 12, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    Lyle (30) is right. As used in the scriptures, agency appears to refer to a divinely granted stewardship to act according to ones own judgment, not our inherent discretionary ability per se, which should be called “free will”. Whatever the nomenclature, they are two different concepts. Every government regulates agency but is hard pressed to regulate the will.

  42. K. Follett on October 12, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    “The question is why Christ chose so much better than we did? Why did He choose exponentially better, so much so that he was a God when we where merely pre-mortal humans?

    It seems like the answer to that question is that He was fundamentally better than us. I would be willing to consider other options if there are any.”

    Christ, like God the Father, was also “older” and more “experienced” than the rest of us, so it is not necessarily that he chose exponentially better, just that He also had a head start over the rest of us. Indeed, who knows but that His sojourn on the earth in the meridian of time was not His first walk in mortality? Might He not have once been like us now, wondering about these same issues with respect to the God He worshipped?

  43. Nate Oman on October 12, 2005 at 7:23 pm

    Michael: “So the pure ?self-created man? option is not theoretically available to us.”

    I don’t see that this follows from your points re the fall and the atonment. Indeed, the fact that left to our own choices we all fall short of the glory of god suggests that agency is a fully sufficient answer to the question of why we are not God yet. The question is whether or not we fall short because of some inherent defect in our natures, or it just happens to be the chance that we make mistakes. In other words, are statements about the fall claims about nature or are they emperical observations.

  44. greenfrog on October 13, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Wonderfully thought-provoking post.

    One tangential thought:

    At this point, we get the uniquely Mormon conundrum of trying to understand why God is God and we are not. Put in another way, “If we have been around just as long as God, then why aren’t we God yet?”

    There is a way to read LDS scripture that suggests that as we do the acts of Christ, we become Christ. If we do the acts of God, how meaningful is the distinction between ourselves and God? As I read D&C 130, God, too, is subject to limitations on discretion and ability to affect existence. So within that context, God acts. So, too, do we.

    Perhaps the exercise of agency in conformity with divine principles is the very definition of God. If it is, then the huge separation between God’s nature and our nature doesn’t seem so huge to me.

  45. Wm Jas on October 13, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    Either our choices are caused or they are random. If they’re random, then they’re just as much a matter of luck as is our nature. If they’re caused, then what are they caused by if not our nature? Unless you accept the premise that choice is completely random (and therefore morally meaningless), the primacy of nature seems unavoidable.

    Put another way, it’s easy to imagine nature without agency (inanimate objects have a nature but, by most accounts, no agency) — but it’s impossible to imagine meaningful agency without nature. How could someone with no nature — which implies having no desires, no preferences, and no capacity to be “tempted” by anything in particular — possibly make a choice? Therefore nature must precede agency.

  46. Clark on October 13, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    It seems that some what agency to be untamed by any limits. Yet that only works if there is only one intelligence. As soon as you have multiple intelligences you must have something that divides them, that allows inter-communication and so forth. At that point you have nature and you have limits on choice.

    The claim that choices are only either caused or random seems questionable. Why can’t choice simply be the third choice? Isn’t this the fallacy of the false dichotomy? I admit I’m skeptical about the ontology of choice – especially as often considered. But It doesn’t follow that simply because all science deals with is causation or randomness that this is all there is.

    Regarding the many scriptural quotes. I’d be very loath to apply them ontologically. They deal with the kind of phenomena we as regular people encounter. I see no reason to push them further than that. I think to do so is to de-contextualize them. That’s the very error that I think led to all the metaphysical thinking that produced the Trinity, produced creation ex nihilo and so forth. I’m really uncomfortable pushing these sorts of scriptures the way some might. I’d prefer to say that I see very few scriptures that have the kind of deep philosophical reference that is demanded for them to be relevant.

  47. Michael on October 14, 2005 at 3:07 am

    Nate:

    re: 43, I’m not sure I get it. Your approach seems to be to focus on how far we get if left to our own devices–we’re all lost. As you say, one can wonder if this is because of our flawed natures or because of our previous bad choices.

    But my point was just that we are not left to our own devices. Thus, if we one day are saved in the kingdom of God, and we ask ourselves whether we have become what we have become by luck or by our own agency, we will have to acknowledge that it is not because of our agency alone but rather because, luckily, God intervened. While this is perhaps the doctrinally clearest example of a case in which one’s spiritual progress depends on something for which one is not responsible (Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice), I tried to argue that there are many other ways in which other external events impact spiritual progress. (Another example: a soul in spirit prison’s progression is hampered because, unluckily for her, I spend my time commenting on Times and Seasons rather than doing genealogy on FamilySearch.)

    Of course, if you grant that our spiritual progress is dependent both on our choices and external events (you don’t seem to deny it), then you can always isolate the “choice” aspect and ask whether it is caused by the nature we happen to have or whether it is caused by something for which we are more intimately responsible, our previous and ongoing exercises of agency.

    But I thought the attractive side of the “agency prior to nature” horn of the dilemma was that it allows us to avoid the problem of luck: it’s supposed to allow us to maintain that, as you said, we deserve to be who we are. In other words, it allows us to hold that we are responsible for our very natures. If you admit that the atonement and many other external factors contribute to our natures, then we are not wholly responsible for them; we are not entirely self-made. True, the nature I have today is not a function of the nature that happened to be given to me before the world was made; rather, it’s a function of the various random things that have happened to me since. Either way, though, my nature depends partially on events outside my control, ergo I am not entirely responsible for it, ergo the ‘luck egalitarianism’ concern doesn’t go away.

    Looking back at your original post, I realize that you acknowledge what I’ve been arguing for: that the circumstances of life play a real role in social outcomes (I would add that they play a role even in our spiritual progress). So you seem to be defending the more limited claim that our innate abilities are not purely the result of luck. I guess I just don’t see how that helps with the problem of luck egalitarianism very much. Even without positing a premortal life, by the time an egalitarian can try to compensate for the injustice of the talent lottery, everyone’s talents will be the product of both luck in having certain abilities and choices about how to use that luck. But that state of affairs (in which agency and luck both play a role) is unacceptable to the luck egalitarian, who denies that luck should play any role at all.

    If who we are depends in part on external events, the only way to deny that our nature depends on luck is to deny that external events affect us in arbitrary ways. The easiest way to deny that, it seems to me, is to assert that God, in his justice, ultimately makes sure that each receives according to his or her desires.

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