I will intentionally ignore the larger context in which chapter 7 of The Attributes of God appears—namely, an attempt to nail down the nature, according to the Mormon conception, of divine omniscience. I’ll focus more narrowly on just what Ostler has to say about agency. I think the larger concerns here are important, but we have some weeks yet in which to take up his conclusions.
Late in chapter 7, Ostler begins to speak of emergence. I think this is the right term, but not, I think, in the way Ostler uses it. I want to talk about agency itself—in more classically philosophical terms: subjectivity—as emergent, but he, if I understand him right, wants to talk about choice-events as emergent. What’s the difference?
Ostler, following the basic framework of analytic discussions of freedom of the will, provides us with two broad approaches to the will’s freedom—the compatibilist thesis, according to which the idea of the freedom of the will is argued to be compatible with causal determinism, and the incompatibilist thesis, according to which the idea of the freedom of the will is argued to be incompatable with causal determinism. The adherent of the former position has no need to question the conclusions of the determinist, but only to justify a minimalist conception of freedom (to be free is to follow one’s causally determined desires); the adherent of the latter position does have to combat determinism, but does so by motivating belief in libertarian free will. The compatibilist, moreover, worries that the incompatibilist who affirms libertarian free will at least implicitly boasts before God; the incompatibilist worries that the compatibilist doesn’t see the real difficulties bound up with affirming causal determinism.
But to grant emergence—in the sense I’m using the term here—is to suggest that the compatibilist/incompatibilist framework is too restrictive. There’s reason, with the incompatibilist, to contest causal determinism, but there’s reason, with the compatibilist, to worry that belief in libertarian free can’t avoid a kind of boasting before God. Emergence marks out a third path, one in which a model of dialectical emergence replaces the model of efficient causality, and so agency or subjectivity (or the will—why not?) can be regarded as other than a cause without being an effect (a caused effect). (Another way to put all this: the compatibilist/incompatibilist framework, within which Ostler (barely) remains has not yet broken off its love affair with Descartes—has not yet gone through the necessary subsequent infatuation with Spinoza that leads to a solid relationship with Hegel.)
But can a Latter-day Saint really go down this road? Didn’t Sterling McMurrin make quite clear to us fifty years ago that the theological insight that marks the “foundations of the Mormon religion” is the affirmation of each individual (in the form of an intelligence, a spirit, a mind—what have you) as an uncaused cause co-eternal with God? Wouldn’t an affirmation of emergent and therefore non-causal subjectivity part ways with Mormonism by that singular move alone?
If so, then the Book of Mormon parts ways with Mormonism.
In a brief hermeneutic gesture meant to secure Mormonism’s commitment to libertarian free will, Ostler takes up 2 Nephi 2. From that chapter (he quotes and comments on verses 16-17, 23, and 26-27), he draws the following implications: “free agency requires that beings must be able to rationally estimate the relative merits of possible courses of action in choosing”; “persons are not free if they are merely acted upon and do not act for themselves”; and “free will, if genuine, requires a choice among alternatives that are ‘enticing’ or live options and genuinely open to the agent in the moment of free decision” (pp. 209-210). I think all of that is quite right, but I wonder why Ostler doesn’t draw from 2 Nephi 2 the following, additional, and clearly stated claim: agency is predicated on the event of Christ’s resurrection.
Here’s what Lehi says, with a bit of bolding for emphasis (and note that Ostler quotes these same verses, with a bit of abridgement for his own purposes):
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Nephi 2:26-27)
The basic point couldn’t be much clearer. Human agency (in its most robust sense) doesn’t exist, according to Lehi, before or apart from or independent of Christ’s resurrection, the redemption of the flesh. Indeed, it’s precisely what the resurrection accomplishes with respect to the flesh that, according to Lehi, creates the demand to preach:
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. (2 Nephi 2:8; cf. 2 Nephi 9:7-9)
Agency—what Lehi calls “free[dom] according to the flesh”—is entirely predicated on the Christ’s intervention, what we call the event of Christ’s resurrection.
It’s in this sense at the very least that we ought to talk about agency or subjectivity as emergent. Agency, in the Book of Mormon, is not an eternal component of uncaused spirits or intelligences, but something that has to be brought out in them or introduced into them. Human beings—in the weave of whatever actually is eternal in them (if anything) and whatever isn’t (if anything)—are, as such, necessary but not sufficient conditions for agency. It’s only in the wake of an event that agency becomes a reality.
Such, at any rate, is the story as Lehi tells it. But might one suggest that this is one of those instances where post-Book of Mormon Mormonism breaks with the Book of Mormon—an instance of Nauvoo perfectionism that draws on some of Lehi’s words but dispenses with whatever smacks of grace and traditional Christianity? Indeed, shouldn’t we simply say that Joseph’s Nauvoo theology leaves behind the redeemed-flesh theology of the Book of Mormon to embrace a more radical doctrine of eternally uncreated intelligences whose individual libertarian freedom is woven into their very eternal natures as uncaused causes? Perhaps the Book of Mormon itself (because of its ancient bearings?) breaks with Cartesianism in certain determinate ways, but Joseph, a product of his own times, brought Cartesian presuppositions back into Mormon thought in Nauvoo, premortalizing the Cartesian subject and leaving grace on the doorstep of a newly built perfectionist mansion?
I haven’t the space to argue for it at any real length, but I’m convinced this isn’t right. Rather than taking Joseph’s sermons in Nauvoo to be projecting agency into our past eternity (it’s that sort of idea that, at least in part, led to speculations about how we employed our agency in premortality and so achieved our social or racial standing at birth!), why don’t we read take them to be making clear that the plan of salvation is a project of introducing agency to eternal somethings that might otherwise never achieve it?
There are, of course, other ways of talking about emergent agency—a good example being the model Adam has spelled out in his forthcoming Speculative Grace (to be published by Fordham University Press). It’s rich and robust, though Adam and I will be arguing about its conclusions and implications for a long time. (My main contention with Adam might be spelled out in the terms of one of my parentheticals above: Adam has told Descartes he’s no longer interested, and he’s begun spending a lot of time with Hegel, but he spends most of that time confessing his obsessions about Spinoza.) But whether we play this or that emergence card, it’s an emergence card that needs, it seems to me, to be played.