Sunday 10 March 2013

Implications of the reality of Man's free agency


The following is adapted from a comment I made on the blog of WmJas 


Once the decision has been made that free agency is necessary and real, then various consequences are implied which I think do not usually tend to be followed up.

In fact, one of the things I find most impressive about Joseph Smith's Restored Christianity, is the way in which he - step by step, and not without faltering, but with great determination and completeness - follows up the implications of human free agency for our fundamental status in the Christian world.

(In what follows I use God to refer to the one God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth; and lower case god to refer to the many Sons of God' of the same 'kind' as Jesus Christ - to which status Christians believe humans will be resurrected. This use of lower case god is mainstream Christian and occurs frequently in the Bible - perhaps sometimes also referring to the angels, whose status in relation to God and Man is scripturally ambiguous.)


It is hard to make sense of free agency without also acknowledging that humans are of the same 'kind' as God - are minor or flawed/ corrupted gods, but of the same general kind.

Free agency is such an astonishing thing, implying such qualitatively superior powers on the part of humans, that something of this sort seems to be implied (I'm not saying it is entailed, but it is at least potentially implied).


Because free agency cannot work in a void - but also goes with knowledge/ intelligence and reason - which both enable learning from experience, and provide or supply the basis for free agency.

And for the 'triad' of free agency, intelligence and reason to be able to operate under widely varied and often hostile mortal conditions, and for learning to occur; seems to imply an autonomy from these mortal conditions. 

It seems to imply the autonomy of the soul (or unique personal spirit).


And, in turn, such autonomy seems to imply 'eternal' existence - in the sense of pre-existence of the soul (before mortal life) and well as its persistence after death - otherwise (it seems!) the free agent soul would be subject-to the conditions of mortal life, and therefore unfree.


But while mainstream Christian thought has tended, often, to regard incarnation of the soul and the added factor of the body as yet another disadvantage which limits agency (the body's needs and weaknesses are seen as a constraint on agency) - JS saw the body as an enhancement of agency, by (as it were) concentrating the diffuse matter of the soul/ spirit into a form that is capable of controlling matter in a proto-god-like manner (en route to full godhood).


I have extrapolated, but the main point was the first - that the reality of free agency is not just god-like, but evidence of god-status - and not just potentially, but here and now, actually, in mortal life.

Which implies that we are already Sons of God here and now on earth, that is our status - but at a developmental stage which is yet incomplete and un-perfected, at least partially-corrupted, and indeed preliminary.

(And, because of free agency: capable of rejecting further development or  indeed denying our Son of God status; we can freely chose to sell ourselves into slavery, and thereby to ally with the other spirits, the fallen Sons of God, who have already done so.)


A full recognition of the reality/ necessity of free agency at the core of Man, therefore leads onto many other plausible inferences - not compelling entailments, since they can be and are usually denied; but inferences which seem to flow naturally-enough from the structure and inclinations of the human mind.

And if the human mind is regarded as capable of free agency (and has knowledge and reason, thus can learn) then what results is a higher estimate of Man's capability and autonomy, hence mortal Man's status, role and evaluative ability - than in most versions of mainstream Christianity.



Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Good post.

I particularly liked your conclusion: And if the human mind is regarded as capable of free agency […] then what results is a higher estimate of Man's capability and autonomy, […] than in most versions of mainstream Christianity.

It reminds me of Henri de Lubac’s introduction to his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, where he emphasizes the liberating power Christianity had over minds submitted before to the blind forces of fate. Reading and re-reading this striking introduction made me understood much better what 'Good News' meant when speaking of the Gospel. You are right that this meaning is, alas, lost or diluted to insipidity in many, many groups of mainstream Christianity.

The chapter is titled “A Tragic Misunderstanding.” You may read it on my blog, or at Ignatius Insight:

Wm Jas said...

the reality of free agency is not just god-like, but evidence of god-status - and not just potentially, but here and now, actually, in mortal life.

And this view is perfectly consistent with the Bible. See 1 John 3:2, for example:

"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - I'm pleased, and somewhat relieved, to find you agree with this general line of thought!

@WmJas - Yes, I think so. Obviously some kind of balance is needed. But there certainly are strong strands of Christian faith in some denominations in which human agency has been diminished to near zero levels, and everything-is-done-by-God - including the decision to become a Christian; and the mistrust of human discernment (due to the depth of human depravity) becomes so great that it opens-up an infinite regress of not being able to trust anything.

(At least that is how it feels to me, as I follow the logic of these denominations in myself - I end up doubting everything include the evidence and reasoning which leads to my doubting anything.)

Matthew C. said...

I have disliked Free Agency very much for most of my life. But it is undoubtedly true. I've made many bad decisions and would (when I had turned my back on God) have preferred to be able to excuse them away.

We can run away from our utter and complete responsibility to make choices but as soon as we stop running it's still there, the same as when we left it (except we have fewer and fewer choices left in our lives). And the choice, ultimately, is to serve God, or ourselves.

The Crow said...

Realizing there is no difference or separation between oneself and the greater God, one abandons one's notions of 'uniqueness', as obsolete.
One may be unique only in as far as one does not yet know what one is.
Paradoxically, one's true self is a unique facet of a common whole.
One is not unique within that whole, only as a (separate) part of it.

FHL said...

You know, I will often read a post here and think "that's exactly what I thought!" but then it turns out you meant something different.

But do you mean to say that free-will implies that human beings can break (and are breaking) the law of the conservation of energy? And in doing so, they are (in a limited manner) actually capable of creation ex-nihilo?

Because if that's what you mean- then that's exactly what I thought!

I was amazed, and somewhat terrified, by this idea.

It reminded me of this quote from The Screwtape Letters (as you know, written from the pen of a devil):

"One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda,but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His."

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - That is not what I intended, and I don't think it is what I mean.

Did I say it by accident?

Indeed this pluralist metaphysics does not require creation ex nihilo in the way that Christian monism does.

I think that the 'laws' of physics, those things which get revised every few years, are any use in discussing theology.

FHL said...

"Did I say it by accident?"

I looked over your post again, as well as read through the posts written by WmJas. I do not think you explicitly said it. I think I read it in as an implicit consequence of what you said.

I don't know if I am right though, about the whole "law" of physics as well as the ex nihilo thing. It may depend on how you define the two.

I do have more I'd like to say but I do not have time to think and type out a reply right now, and I will be busy for the rest of the day. I'll take the day to think it over.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thank you for reminding me so graciously of how severe and harsh I am most of the time. The bright side of it is that I am always amazed and grateful at the graciousness of others.

I think we are largely in agreement on moral (=practical) issues and just a bit less so on liturgical issues (the joint between practical and supernatural planes -- the last being abstract when viewed in theological and philosophical terms difficult to apply to actual life. I believe our differences are on a few properly theological and related philosophical points.

Adam G. said...

I would only add that the doctrine of sin being bad, no-really-we-mean-it bad makes a lot more sense if you realize that humans are little gods with quasi-divine freedom.

The corruption you embrace is corruption you are forcing onto a god, and the embrace is itself a corruption of the very freedom that makes you godlike.

Adam G. said...

I forgot to say that the obvious limitations that mortality brings are what makes it godlike. Mortality means space and time. Because I am here I cannot be here. Because I pass this second in this way, I cannot pass it in some other. But these limits are the very basis of choice. Being limited in time and space makes thousands of choices possible. Being able to choose is godlike, so it is precisely the limitations of mortality that bring us closer to the throne.

Agellius said...

I often hear Mormons talking about free agency as if it were something unique to Mormonism. How does it differ from what Catholics and others call simply "free will"?

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

The will is the power of a free agent to 'act' (agens is from the verb ago, agere, actum). An agent is a being that can make itself or some other being pass from potency (potentiality) to act (actum); in other words, a being capable of changing, or moving and of producing motion or change in other beings.

Agellius said...


You seem to be saying that a free agent is a being with free will. In which case I still don't see any difference between the Mormon belief in free agency and the Catholic belief in free will. The gist of the belief in both cases is the freedom of human beings to act as they choose; the Mormon term referring to the being itself and the Catholic term to the power of the being to act.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Agellius - wrt RC compared with Mormon Free will/ agency - I don't see any substantive difference in these concepts. Certainly, Aquinas is absolutely clear about the reality of free will, and he cleared up the problem for me.

But Joseph Smith followed through (what I think are) the implications of the reality of Man's free will: that free will is so strange a concept for an earthly creature, that it is more plausibly the attribute of a god (albeit a god under particularly difficult circumstances) which means that free will has (a 'godlike') existential autonomy from the circumstances of the mortal world.

The difference may not be large - but I think it is the difference between Man as a god-being which has free agency as his own natural endowment; and Man as a non-divine creature into-which God has *put* free will.

But I may be wrong...

Agellius said...


Thanks for explaining.

I guess I would agree that man's "existential autonomy from the circumstances of the mortal world" make him in that sense godlike. This is not a controversial claim in Catholicism, since we are said to be made in God's image. Not believing God to be a physical being, the way in which we are like God would have to be in our having spirit, i.e. intellect and will.

"The difference may not be large - but I think it is the difference between Man as a god-being which has free agency as his own natural endowment; and Man as a non-divine creature into-which God has *put* free will."

Your wording isn't entirely clear to me, but as sort of a guess, are you saying the difference is between our being created by God, and our being God's natural, organic progeny?

If so then as you say, the difference, if any, is not large since free will exists in either case. Perhaps in the Catholic scheme, man owes more to God since his free will (as indeed his very life) is given entirely gratuitously.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - My understanding of Mormon theology is that in some sense, each human spirit is coeternal with God the Father - but it was God who gave each a 'spirit body' (made of matter but matter of great diffuseness) - beginning with Jesus Christ.

So (I think) the original 'intelligence' of each human was not created but was always there - albeit unable to do anything; and then each human was created as a spirit child of God (and the Heavenly Mother, some believe - although there is very little scriptural evidence on this).

This spirit child is given a mortal body to come to earth.

So, the free agency is a consequence of being a spirit of the same type and duration as God. Free agency is therefore (by this account) not a gift of God but intrinsic to Man.

Agellius said...

So according to your understanding, the original intelligence had free agency even though it was "unable to do anything"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A That does sound strange! But I haven't read anything about the supposed properties of the very earliest stage. One could imagine that the intelligence without a spirit body was rather like a ghost as often depicted in modern fiction - an intelligence but unable to get a purchase on matter - purely an observer? I am not sure whether any memory is posited, but I suspect not - just an observing intelligence which lives in the present moment is how I imagine it...

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Free will and agency, as well as many other philosophical concepts, were refined by Aquinas in the light of Divine Revelation, but those concepts are anterior to the Roman Church as they can be traced back to Aristotle.

Smith’s doctrine of pre-existent souls (or gods) is a regress from Aristotle to Plato’s doctrine of pre-existent forms or ideas, which applies only to the angelic world, not to the human one. Any sort of idealism or dualism, whether Platonic or Cartesian or other, is incompatible with Revelation because it usually implies we are souls-spirits trapped in a body that we shed like a snakeskin when we step in eternity; re-incarnation goes by the same logic and both are contradictory with the resurrection of the flesh (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - I don't think that is right - JS is anti-philosophical, anti-idealist, and uses common sense reasoning. I doubt whether he read Plato. And these souls are not ideals.

But the pre-existence of souls does indeed have a neo-Platonic basis, including St Augustine.

I don't think it could be called heretical - just non-mainstream.

Agellius said...

"I don't think it could be called heretical - just non-mainstream."

It's certainly heretical from the Catholic standpoint, as well as to the vast majority of Protestants, to say that our souls were not created by God but coexisted with him from all eternity.

"One could imagine that the intelligence without a spirit body was ... an intelligence but unable to get a purchase on matter - purely an observer? I am not sure whether any memory is posited, but I suspect not - just an observing intelligence which lives in the present moment is how I imagine it..."

An "intelligence without a spirit body"... I can't seem to make sense of your terms. By definition, a spirit is an immaterial intelligence. As we have discussed, the ways in which we are called "godlike" relate to things immaterial: The fact that we have intelligence and will. We are not called "godlike" as a result of having material bodies, but because we are conscious and can make choices, rather than have our actions dictated by material causes. If our bodies made us godlike, then rocks and animals would also be godlike.

So it seems that an "intelligence" is already a spirit, according to my understanding of "spirit". But in that case why does it need a spirit body to exercise its faculties? In any case, isn't "spirit body" an oxymoron?

But maybe you don't define "spirit" in that way. I have heard that Joseph Smith taught that spirit is actually a type of "fine matter", and a lot of Mormons apparently accept that definition.

But if the intelligence is a spirit in this sense, then it's made of matter, and therefore by definition has a body. If it already has a body, then what happens to this body when it receives its spirit body? does it get received into the spirit body the way our pre-mortal spirit bodies are received into our physical bodies? Are we then spirit bodies within spirit bodies within physical bodies?

You say, in effect, that these intelligences had to have material bodies, of a sort, before they could exercise their inherent free agency. But why should that be, if free agency is an immaterial thing? (Or do you posit that free agency is a material thing?) True, without bodies they could not exercise their free agency on matter. But does that mean they could not exercise it at all? Do "exercising free agency" and "exercising free agency on matter" mean the same thing?

You said you imagined them as "observers". Was their observance limited to material things? If so, then wouldn't they have to be located in a particular place in order to observe things? Could they move from one physical location to another in order to change what they were observing? If so, what would it mean for an "intelligence" to "move"? Alternatively, do you suppose they were able to observe all physical things simultaneously, or at least from one "place", and simply switch their attention from one physical thing to another?

If they were not able to do any of these things, then I'm hard-pressed to understand how they could be classed as "intelligences" at all. "Intelligence" implies the ability to think and learn. But in order to think and learn, you have to have things to think about, and be able to take in new information, or at least process information that you already possess.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

...pre-existence of souls does indeed have a neo-Platonic basis, including St Augustine: I did not research this question but I don't think St. Augustine believed in pre-existence of the soul, except in the Biblical expression that we were in God's thought for eternity, but we will be privy to that only when we enter into beatitude.

There are a couple of paragraphs about St. Augustine in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the 'Soul.' As always, I found it is a perfectly satisfying overview. All I could say on the question is there.