Exploring Mormon Thought: Agency

March 7, 2012 | 17 comments
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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.

17 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Agency

  1. Adam Greenwood on March 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Agency, in the Book of Mormon, is not an eternal component of uncaused spirits or intelligences

    Well done. I was recently struck by the same passage myself– http://www.jrganymede.com/2012/02/17/korihor-and-terry-givens-vs-the-mormon-doctrine-of-original-sin/ –in a somewhat different context.

    If we take a minimal definition of agency as choosing, then by definition agency can’t inhere entirely in our uncreated original selves because without the external world and relationship we have nothing to choose.

  2. clark on March 7, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I agree and think it’s erroneous to read in too much metaphysics to these passages. I’d note though that Blake sees the atonement as important in making the choices real choices. Thus he sees the effect of the atonement on the paths open rather than in terms of the metaphysics of the individual. It’s about the consequences. Blake’s main argument for libertarian free will is ultimately that he thinks it wrong to punish people for sins if they don’t have libertarian free will.

  3. Carey on March 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Just thought I’d ask a question in order to make sure I was understanding the jist of what your saying. Your saying that BOM (2 Nephi 2) is saying that Free agency emerges from Christ’s resurrection and therefore that contradicts JS teaching about it being something we’ve always had (pre-mortally speaking), correct?

  4. Mark D. on March 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Agency should not be thought of as a synonym for free will, but rather as a synonym for the right and the ability to exercise free will within a personal domain. Self-determination, in other words.

    What support is there for this position? How about the following:

    “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man…I caused that he should be cast down” (Moses 4:3)

    “That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.” (D&C 101:78-80)

    First of all, it is almost entirely implausible that everyone prior to Adam and Eve, or everyone prior to Jesus Christ, were automatons who lacked free will, unless you read both propositions metaphorically, and adopt the doctrine of total inability, a doctrine which in LDS terms has serious recursion problems.

    Second, the scripture says that Satan sought to “destroy the agency of man”. What was he going to do, turn them back into automatons? Or rather, was his intent to bring them into bondage, whether self inflicted or externally inflicted, or both?

    Third, D&C 101 strongly implies that agency is impaired through the practice of slavery. Why would that be the case if agency were a synonym for free will? It rather, would much more likely be the case if agency is the right and the ability to choose for oneself within a protected domain, indeed the very reason why this country was established in the first place.

    Without that freedom of discretion, not only agency is impaired, moral accountability is as well. And if moral accountability is impaired, so is the judgment, and indeed the plan of salvation.

  5. Adam Greenwood on March 7, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man…I caused that he should be cast down” (Moses 4:3)

    You could read it saying that Satan was attacking agency by aborting it before it really ever got going.

  6. Jacob J on March 8, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Rather than pointing out the problem of reading too much metaphysics into this, I see the post as making that mistake. I agree that the Book of Mormon focuses on free will as a result of the atonement (I think this is *central* to the theology of atonement found in the BofM). However, I see no tension at all between the BofM discussions of free will and Joseph Smith’s ideas about self-existent spirits with inherent free will. I think the tension only arises when we read to much metaphysics into these BofM passages which were not about metaphysics.

    Also, you are tying ideas to Nauvoo that pre-date Nauvoo by a long shot. In my opinion the strongest statement from Joseph Smith on agency being intrinsic to humans and stretching back to the pre-mortal life is found in D&C 93:29-31, which is from Kirtland in 1833, well in advance of the Nauvoo period.

  7. DLewis on March 8, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Great post, Joe. I think you hit on what Givens has gestured towards elsewhere: that agency has as much, if not more, to do with consequences than with free will. We have agency because our actions have moral consequences attached to them, for good or ill. Of course, everyone realizes that life itself isn’t just, and that virtue doesn’t always win–that’s why the resurrection promises not just physical re-embodiment, but the restoration of the right consequences to our actions (Alma 40-42 is all about this). This restoration is only possible through the resurrection. I feel it’s probably even more complicated than this, since such a description can create a too simplistic moral view of life, but I’m totally onboard about the resurrection being an essential part of agency (I’d call it “earthly agency,” since I think it’s different from the pre-mortal agency Smith talks about).

  8. Blake on March 8, 2012 at 10:40 am

    It seems to me that it serves us to be careful about reading too much of Joseph Smith’s later views of intelligences into earlier views of agency. However, I think that there is an easy way to reconcile the dependence of free will (not merely agency) on the Atonement with the eternal free will of intelligences. The Atonement is necessary for free will and resulting agency “according to the flesh.” In light of Lehi’s explanation, and especially Jacob’s later statements in 2 Ne.9, we would all be captive to the devil and not free to act for ourselves because our flesh would be enslaved to sin the devil. We are freed from that kind of servitude by the atonement.

    Taking on a body added new risks and challenges that spirits/intelligences did not have. While we gained a great power to act in certain respects, there was also a greater danger that our flesh would enslave us to the needs, passions and desires of the body. This, intelligences are free to act, but they are limited in scope of action. Enfleshed intelligences have greater scope of action, but greater challenges to freedom to act.

    What isn’t easy to reconcile is the fact that the Atonement was not “accomplished” until Christ’s resurrection — and certainly individuals were free to act and were morally accountable before that temporal moment when the resurrection occurred. Unless one believes in some sort of backward causation, or timeless access of God to all times (though how the temporal event is related to this timeless realm is doubly problematic), we cannot see the Atonement (in this sense) as requiring the efficacy of resurrection as the condition of agency. (I think s is what Mark B. was appropriately getting at).

    Rather, it is the entire plan of salvation that is the Atonement and it is this plan that makes us free. Those who lived before Christ are freed from the lusts and limitations of the flesh by faith in Christ even before his mortal birth according the many passages in the Book of Mormon. Moreover, the event that Lehi points to as freeing us is not the event of the resurrection, but “redemption,” or the act of repenting and accepting the effects of the Atonement into our lives. If we don’t repent, then we are slaves to our past, always stuck in the same patterns of conduct and guilt. When we are redeemed, we are freed from this slavery to sin and made free to act for ourselves rather than to be merely acted upon by the needs and demands of our flesh and the past memories embedded therein that dictate how we act.

  9. Adam Greenwood on March 8, 2012 at 10:48 am

    DLewis,
    that’s a fascinating read. If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that the atonement and the resurrection are necessary to agency because they give us consequences (without them, we’d end up in the same place no matter what we did, so our choices would have no meaning).
    I’ve argued elsewhere that one reading of the atonement is that it allows us to be forgiven while still having consequences for our actions– http://www.jrganymede.com/2010/08/17/you-want-justice-you-need-justice/ –but your interpretation, if I understand it correctly, goes beyond that in a worthwhile way.

  10. Joe Spencer on March 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Carey #3 – Yes to the first part of your summary (I am saying that agency is opened up as a possibility by the resurrection, according to Lehi), but no to the second part (I’m not saying that there’s necessarily a contradiction between that and Joseph). There may be some kind of a tension between Lehi and Joseph, but I’m not terribly convinced that there is. I’d be more inclined to say that Lehi might give us a way to rework our interpretations of what Joseph had to say. I suspect it’s we who have premortalized the Cartesian self, not Joseph.

    Mark D. #4 – I don’t know that I’ve got a problem with thinking of agency as self-determination. My point is that the Book of Mormon predicates that self-determination (or whatever we take agency to be) on something that comes from outside us. To introduce the Book of Moses or the Doctrine and Covenants is to introduce other questions—questions about what other texts have to say about the sources of agency. Those texts deserve attention, but they’re beyond the scope of what I’m trying to sort out in this post.

    Jacob J. #6 – First, you’re quite right that there are statements about premortality, etc., from long before Nauvoo. At the same time, it was only in Nauvoo that such teachings were put in sharp enough relief. That said, I say again (as I said just above, and as I thought I made clear in the post) that I don’t see a contradiction or even a strong tension between Joseph and Lehi. I suspect, rather, that Lehi helps us see what Joseph was really saying.

    Blake #8 – I’m intrigued by your emphasis here on “according to the flesh,” but I’m not entirely sure it works. Jacob says in 2 Nephi 9 not only that our flesh causes trouble but that, without a resurrection (and therefore without flesh, it would seem), our spirits would become subject to the devil—angels to a devil, etc. That ultimate subjection might be taken to be a consequence of an inability while in the flesh to escape from it, but I’m inclined to read Jacob differently. I’m not sure, further, that I agree with the idea that “our flesh would enslave us to the needs, passions and desires of the body,” etc. Isn’t the point of 2 Nephi 2 to say that that would be the case, but then there’s the resurrection?

    At any rate, you identify the real difficulty when you point out the strange fact that the atonement wasn’t actually executed until long after Lehi was talking. And I think what you say in response to that difficulty is exactly right, though I’m not sure why you want to distance redemption from the event of the resurrection: whether before the resurrection event or after, the Book of Mormon consistently predicates redemption on faithfulness or fidelity to that event (anticipatorily or retrospectively). Hence the constant “as though he had already come among us” of the Book of Mormon: it is always a matter of orientation to the Christ event.

  11. Blake on March 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Joe: Good questions. I’d say that use of “spirit” in 2 Ne. 2 and 9 is not addressing the same thing as intelligences/spirits in the Book of Abr. or Joseph’s Nauvoo teachings. However, my view is that eternal spirits are free to act for themselves (have self-determination). However, when they become embodied they become subjected to the wants, needs, desires, lusts and so forth of the body. A part of what we are here to do is to learn to control these bodily challenges by giving the spiritual part of us ascendancy. If we don’t, then we become subjected to the lusts of the flesh, enslaved in a sense that our spirits have not mastered the challenges of being embodied in this type of carnal (fleshy) body.

    I agree that distinguishing redemption from the Atonement is not fully possible. However, one can be redeemed at the moment of repentance by the power of the Atonement, but that can occur by that very power even without the resurrection being completed. If it were not so, then Alma’s redemption would require backward causation or timelessness or something like that.

  12. clark on March 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Joe: (10) Jacob says in 2 Nephi 9 not only that our flesh causes trouble but that, without a resurrection (and therefore without flesh, it would seem), our spirits would become subject to the devil—angels to a devil, etc.

    It’s interesting you brought that up. I remember when young constantly hearing the folk doctrine that somehow Satan had dominion over spirits and it was our bodies that gave us power. Part of this seems to go back to the Book of Mormon and parts probably arose out of questionable NDE accounts. Overall it never made a lot of sense to me. (Sorry – I never bothered to try and trace its route among major figures in the late 19th century)

    To me it seems like there’s two ways to read 2 Ne 9:8.

    One is more in dualism where if we aren’t like God we’re subject to the devil typologically. We can’t overcome our habits if we’re forever a spirit. That’s in keeping with the idea of spirit in Alma 34:34. Put an other way I’m not sure we should read spirit as a kind of ultimate substance here. So we’re subject to the devil because we’re the same kind of beings as him in terms of our aims. I’d note that this actually lines up with the old NDE accounts where someone addicted to something retains the addiction after death but doesn’t have a body to change the habit.

    The other reading is more in terms of angelology where the devil here is a physical person who rules us more in a manner akin to Dante’s inferno. Part of this is less that the devil somehow can rule us because of this than merely we’re not allowed back to heaven so there’s no place else to go. In this reading the resurrection isn’t merely the gaining of a body but it’s a kind of return. Now one can quibble with this because of the resurrection of the just and unjust – although one can also see in this a prototype of the latter conception of the 3 degrees of glory for all resurrected beings separated from sons of perdition. Which is interesting since usually people take it as a problem that there’s nothing theologically like that in the Book of Mormon.

    How all that relates to freedom in an other issue – and let me reiterate these were common folk doctrines I heard while young and not what Blake was arguing for.

    To me I think most uses of spirit in the Book of Mormon shouldn’t be taken as a spirit-body or soul but more a kind of way of being.

  13. MC on March 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    “But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.”

    -The Brothers Karamazov

  14. Larry on March 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    The point that you make with respect to the atonement is important. The beauty of that atonement is backward looking as much as it is forward looking. Moses 1:6 clearly lets us understand this principle when Moses is told that he is in the similitude of “Mine Only Begotten, who is and shall be. . .” The point is that you are absolutely correct in equating agency and free will with the atonement.

  15. Dave on March 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Chapter 7 is a lot of detailed argument, so I struggle to find a constructive comment — perhaps the idea that philosophers have been disputing these points for centuries and are still faced with the same basic difficulties is somewhat reassuring.

    While I’m not that familiar with the path through Spinoza to Hegel (I find Spinoza largely impenetrable), I know that it ends at Kant’s antinomies, in particular that of free will and determinism, the basic idea being a recognition that the two concepts are, in a general sense, necessary and inconsistent for how we as humans perceive and navigate the world. No mention of Kant’s view in either the chapter or the post. Granted, it reformulates the problem rather than posing a solution, but is that view no longer relevant to the discussion?

  16. joespencer on March 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Blake #11 – Thank you for your clarifications.

    I’m inclined, for a host of reasons, in a somewhat different direction. I’m nervous, for instance, about the idea of “controlling” the body of the “ascendancy” of the spirit. Indeed, I have a hard time seeing how any attempt at control or ascendancy isn’t just another way of being “subjected to the lusts of the flesh.”

    As for the atonement, etc., I guess I want to be very careful about the word “power.” I certainly don’t want to think of the atonement as causal. At any rate, as I read Lehi and his successors, the idea is that death—less as an experienciable event than as a limit conceived of—is what sets sin in motion, what corrupts the flesh; and so that the resurrection, by trumping death, allows for an orientation of the flesh that outstrips death, and hence for redemption. I don’t know where that does or doesn’t match up with your conception (about which we’ll have much time to talk as we come to volume 2, no?).

    Clark #12 – First a brief note that the idea of one’s body giving one power over the unembodied appears in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons (a couple of them, in fact). I’d have to revisit them in detail to feel comfortable with any interpretation, but it’s there they hail from.

    That said, I find the proposal to read “spirit” in the Book of Mormon as something other than a substantial being (sorry for that excessively loose terminology) intriguing but largely unconvincing. In 2 Nephi 9, for instance, Jacob has a good deal to say about our spirits being captive and then released, parallel to our bodies being captive and then released, so that the two can be reunited—which is not to mention all the talk in the Book of Mormon of “the body of a spirit,” etc., as in Ether 3.

    Dave #15 – I suppose I don’t see Kant’s assessment of freedom as relevant simply because he’s asking a different question. Blake’s chapter presupposes freedom of the will, and he takes as his task to determine which model of freedom Mormon scripture demands—a compatibilist or an incompatibilist model? My post presupposes freedom of the will also, and I take as my task to complicate the compatibilist/incompatibilist divide by taking seriously the possibility of emergent agency. Kant might be said to presuppose the freedom of the will (albeit indirectly, in a sense, by positing the fact of the experience of duty’s demand), but he takes as his task to explain what must be the case, transcendentally, for one to experience duty’s demand. Kant’s transcendental project is asking rather a question quite different from the question(s) Blake and I are asking. I think.

  17. clark on March 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Joe, Joseph definitely taught those with bodies had power over those who didn’t. (see the Jan 1841 sermon for example) However the idea that if we are out of our body Satan has power over us is a bit less clear. (Maybe it is in Joseph’s sermons and I just missed it – certainly that’s happened before)

    Interestingly in that sermon he teaches a position fairly close to the Book of Mormon.

    All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him; the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God the Devil takes power.