Friday 5 February 2016

"Free will" = uncaused causation = "Agency" = a divine attribute. (Mainstream and Mormon Christianity compared)

When people talk about 'free will' they are implicitly referring to an uncaused cause - in other words, the ability to act (e.g. to think a thought) without that act being caused but coming from within.

This can be termed Agency - the property of an entity being an Agent, which is self-motivated (in which motivation originates from within, and is not merely passively caused-by something acting upon the entity.

If this is accepted, then it can be seen that free will and agency are not attributes of the 'material universe' of mainstream modern discourse (nor of science - in which everything either has a cause or else is 'random' and presumed to be unmotivated - like some aspects of quantum physics).

For Christians, indeed, free will and Agency are divine attributes; attributes characteristic of divinity.

Since, for Christians it is assumed (on the basis of revelation), that Men have free will and therefore Agency - this implies that Men are to this extent divine; by which I mean actual mortal incarnate Men are divine.

Which means that God made us as little gods - partial gods, gods in embryo: this is simply a fact, and neither a cause for pride or despair.

For mainstream Christians adhering to Classical theology, this implies that God created us ex nihilo (from nothing; presumably at some time between our conception and birth) as Agents , as beings whose wills are independent from him - so, to that extent, we are mini-gods who are out-of-control of God.

The aim is (by theosis) to become more like God but - since we are created/ creatures - theosis can never go very far towards God-ness. It is an eternal fact that only God can create from nothing, and the main fact of our relationship with him is that asymmetry.

For Mormon Christians, Agency is explained by our essence having been in its origins eternal and independent of God - we 'later' became God's spirit children in a pre-mortal life, and then were (voluntarily) incarnated as mortals.

God as the Creator is a shaper and organizer - he does not (because it is impossible) create from nothing.

Because we were agents from eternity, theosis is seen as an (in principle) unbounded process of progression towards becoming the same as God in nature.

The asymmetry between God and Man that remains eternally is not in terms of creative potential - since Man may become a creator in the same sense as God - but a difference of relationship. An earthly Father and his Son may be of the same nature, but the Father remains the father.

Thus: For Mormonism, relationship has an ultimate, vital and structuring metaphysical role.

This is an essentially unique attribute of Mormonism (unshared with any non-Christian religion and un-shared with any pre-Mormon Christian heresy) and this needs to be understood if Mormon theology is to be understood.


ted said...

Bruce, have you ever looked into Hartshorne's process theology. It appears many of his ideas about God line up with Mormon theology. From wikipedia: "In Hartshorne's theology God is not identical with the world, but God is also not completely independent from the world. God has his self-identity that transcends the earth, but the world is also contained within God. A rough analogy is the relationship between a mother and a fetus. The mother has her own identity and is different from the unborn, yet is intimately connected to the unborn. The unborn is within the womb and attached to the mother via the umbilical cord."

Bruce B. said...

This sort of thing confuses me but what about the idea of man’s agency being subject not to God’s positive will but subject to God’s permissive will?
I don’t know if this is the same thing as saying God’s will is the primary cause of man’s agency but not the secondary cause
These distinctions aren’t the same as (and perhaps are less fundamental than) “caused”/”uncaused”. Nevertheless it has been helpful to me. I apologize ahead of time – I am an amateur at this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted and BB - When I write about theology it is in order to explain something in a way that I can understand - preferably without spraining my brain. At present, I'm pretty happy with what appears here, so I'm not inclined to read other types of theology and try to compare or square them.

I am naturally a philospher, that's what I think about spontaneously; but it is driven by problems I encounter myself. I can't, or at least won't, read and think about philosophy or theology for its own sake.

Nicholas Fulford said...

"If this is accepted, then it can be seen that free will and agency are not attributes of the 'material universe' of mainstream modern discourse (nor of science - in which everything either has a cause or else is 'random' and presumed to be unmotivated - like some aspects of quantum physics)." - Bruce Charlton

We are physical and exist within this universe. Unless there is an aspect of being human that affords some freedom from the physical universe, Free Will is a persistent illusion. I understand and accept that from a functional frame we accept that Free Will exists. In terms of Moral Philosophy, Free Will is the easier base from which to build a moral system. There are moral systems that do not require Free Will as an axiom, but operate upon the idea of a moral agent having functional autonomy - not absolute or essential autonomy. Functional autonomy and rationality together enable an agent to be held accountable. Moral judgment can be made on the basis of the failure to obey the law or socially for breaking taboos or rules that are held by a group as constituting a moral good. Judgment can be rendered for example upon a man who murders, and it is sufficient for purpose of law that the accused has the ability to discern the quality of his actions.

Truth be told, even the most diehard determinist acts as though he has Free Will. He functions on the basis of what he perceives as choices, even if he is stating that Free Will is not possible due to physical constraints. He has moral agency, and accountability for his actions, and that will not change if it is absolutely shown that a man has no Free Will by being a part of the physical universe.

Observing said...

I really don't understand where the free will belief comes in tied to Christianity (except for the free will to believe, and only that). My current understanding is that this term and view is very modern and comes from American expansionism and attitudes.

What happened to God's Will predominating? I thought this was the historical norm, as in this was the view for something like several thousand years before Christ, then from time of Christ to about one or two hundred years ago.

You mention:

"for Christians it is assumed (on the basis of revelation), that Men have free will and therefore Agency"

A pointer or two would be helpful here, as in which revelation?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nicholas - "We are physical and exist within this universe. Unless there is an aspect of being human that affords some freedom from the physical universe, Free Will is a persistent illusion. "

"We are physical" is your metaphysical assumption, which you are interpreting to mean we are wholly-physical and nothing-but physical. This is an assumption, not based on evidence, and both recent in human history and a minority view among living humans.

It is not an assumption I share. Once it is assumed that humans are more-than physical then free-will/ agency becomes possible.

Bruce Charlton said...


The possibility of people making a decision from within themselves and expressive of themselves is both assumed and frequently almost everywhere throughout the Bible - Old Testament and New. It is the basis of the narrative.

God's will - for example in the fulfillment of prophecies - does not entail the negation of human will

But I do not deny - although I lament the fact - that many Christians through history have regarded God as primarily powerful, rather than in essence our loving Father - thus making the Christian concept of God into a rather feeble and unconvincing simulation of the God of the other major monotheism.

God's power is established by his having made everything that was made including ourselves as persons - there is no reason to regard Him as any kind of tyrant or bully of men and women - nonetheless, tragically, this view has been and is not-uncommon.

Anonymous said...

Like Dr Charlton (above), I feel that humans are not just physical, three dimensional bodies. Somehow I know that there is a bit of the divine within me. I can't prove this, but I am certain. What this divine something looks like is not physical, and it does not have three dimensions like my body. I'm certain of that too.

I came across something interesting recently - a TV programme on the physics of reality. I am not a scientist, so I may now commit to typing some laughable errors of understanding. If so, please forgive me you scientists out there.

The TV programme presenter said that scientists make the assumption that information cannot be lost. They also believe that any thing drawn into a black hole can never come out again because the gravity is too strong. Not even light can escape. If that is so, then (they ask), what happens to the information of every thing that is sucked into a black hole never to be seen again? Does the information get sucked in too never to cone out again? No, apparently the rule that information cannot be lost holds good. One scientist, I forget who, theorised that information is held at the edge of the universe in two dimensions, and that the whole universe is a three dimensional projection of that information - like a hologram.

At this point in the TV programme, this physics argument made me wonder how did the two dimensional information get there to be projected? (The programme didn't ask it, so someone had to right?) What if it was put there by a one dimensional object. As far as I understand it, there cannot be a one dimensional object - a one dimensional object has no height, breadth or depth, so it can't exist in time or space. But might a one dimensional object exist outside time and space? 'Yes', came the answer, 'you know I do. I am a point of existence that has always been, and always will be. I am nowhere and everywhere. I am'.

This idea of God as number one, then number two (male and female), then three the son/human is old, really old. It appears time and again throughout human history and across cultures. They myths vary a little, but in essence they are the same. I believe that Christ was/is the incarnation of the world myth. Steiner also believed this.

Mormon theology seems to me to be a version of Christianity that sees behind the surface level of meaning that other denominations do not. In that sense, Mormon Christian theology explains more deeply. It has the idea of the supreme God, plus the Mother and divine children - a 1,2,3 explanation. It has this creative ranking process in common with Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and Sufism.

It may be that physicists with their hologramatic theory of projection from two dimensions (information) to three dimensions (material world) is now beginning to plug into the 1,2,3 descent from God through various stages idea that religious thinkers have known about for thousands of years.

The thought amuses me greatly.