Agency has always played a central role in Mormon theology. As the quintessentially American religion and emerging out of 19th century American culture, it is not surprising that Mormons embrace a doctrine that places so much emphasis on the individual ability to choose. The cosmic war that I talked about last time is often framed as a fundamental disagreement about the importance of individual choice.
This scripture seems to sum it all up,
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.
But the concept of agency is not a simple as it might first appear.
As I see it, there are (at least) three problems with the way I have traditionally conceptualized agency. I don’t want to wade too far into philosophical disputes about free will, but even without getting too technical, we can explore the concept of agency. In no particular order, the problems (or more accurately limitations) are as follows:
1) Bounded agency (the mind-body problem)
Humans seem to have some folk-belief that our “mind” is in some sense distinct from our physiology. We speak in a somewhat detached way about our brains as if they were like our fingers or toes — just another part of the body. This dualism is of course reinforced by religious ideas about the separateness of the ‘spirit’ and the body.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have documented many cases where purely physiological changes to the brain or brain activity (chemical imbalance, a tumor, strong magnetic fields) cause dramatic changes in personality, behavior, and even moral judgment.
As others have noted, Mormonism is not as beholden to the mind-body problem as more traditional Christians seem to be. Joseph’s teaching that spirit is just a more refined type of matter has been interpreted by some as a way out of the dualist dilemma.
It may be there in the doctrine, but I’m not sure that the implications of a materialist theology trickles down to the larger body of the Church. If anything, this kind of understanding should lead us to have a great deal more compassion for those who make different choices than ourselves — we will never fully be able to understand the position of another person or the choices that they make — or even the extent to which the “choices” that we assume they are making can be considered choices at all.
2) Choice in desire? (“turtles all the way down”)
One of the biggest troubles with agency, in my mind, is the problem of desire. This is easier to think about in terms of tastes and preferences. For example, I really like flavorful foods — spicy, sour, sweet, even bitter to some extent — my wife does not share all of my sometimes peculiar tastes. It would be silly to ask her to change her food preferences. These aren’t things that we can transform through force of will. We make very different choices when we go out to eat, and it takes some mutual compromise (and a lot of sauces held out on the side) when we have to agree on what to eat at home.
Our values — one of the main sources of our desires — are the product of some complex interaction between our physiology (to return to point 1), our upbringing, and the situations we find ourselves in (more on this in point 3). Individual agency seems to play little role. Even if we can will our values to change in some meaningful sense, it seems like there are higher-order values that govern the choice to change our values (and so on… hence “turtles all the way down”).
In the Book of Mormon, one of the prerequisites to Alma’s oft-quoted “seed” analogy is that we “desire to believe.” Is that a choice that we can make? In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph (or maybe Jesus) tells us that spiritual “knowledge” and belief are gifts that vary from person to person. Modern psychology seems to be coming to much the same conclusion. There are important individual differences in capacity to believe across populations.
If we do not choose the factors that lead us to make particular choices, can they really be considered choices at all?
3) Bounded agency II (situational factors)
One of the other important limits on agency are the situational factors that are beyond our own control.
If we accept the traditional view of God — all-knowing, all-powerful, etc — we quickly encounter the trouble of free will. If God knows how we will act in any given situation and if God exercises some control over our placement in mortality (as seems to be the popular understand among Mormons), we seem trapped into whatever role God has foreseen. To use a tired example, God presumably knew that Hitler would become the monster of history he became by virtue of being placed into the context of post-WWI Germany. Had Hitler been placed into a different context, history might have played out very differently. This problem, I recently learned, has a name: the argument from free will (you can follow the various links in the wikipedia article if you wish, but I don’t think there are any satisfying answers to the problem).
An unsatisfying Mormon solution
One of the ways that Mormonism deals with these problems of agency is by appealing to the nature of our ultimate judgment. A just God, the argument goes, will judge us in a very personal way. This life is a test, but we are not all graded on a common rubric. This line of thinking quickly leads us (if a stronger version of any of the arguments that I raised above holds) to a place where judgment is meaningless. We all did the best we could in this life because we had no other meaningful choice in the matter.
Perhaps the Calvinists were right — their solution to the problem of free-will was to admit that there was no solution: Free will does not exist in any meaningful sense, and our lives are just ways in which God makes known his power and mercy by damning some of us and saving others.
A more satisfying Mormon solution
Another way to look at these problems is to give up on the idea of a punitive God who possesses all the omni’s that Christians in particular seem bent on attributing to Her or (more typically) Him.
If we return to some of Joseph’s teachings on the matter, our spirits are in some way eternal and uncreated by God. God may have played some role in organizing the raw material of spirit (“intelligence”) into what we are, but we can’t say anything for certain beyond that. Our lives are an effort to discover the eternal principles of existence and happiness and apply them to the best of our feeble ability. The history of spiritual and moral yearning in the human experience is a collection of variations on that theme.