Question: Is the Mormon doctrine of "agency" or "free will" false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

Table of Contents

Question: Is the Mormon doctrine of "agency" or "free will" false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

We know from the scriptures that God can exactly predict the future, but we also know from the scriptures that we have our moral agency to decide our future

Science demonstrates that all interactions of matter--including all events in the human brain--are sufficiently caused by previous events. If we know enough about the laws that govern these interactions and the current state of the universe, we would be able to exactly predict any future event. Does this mean that the doctrine of "agency" or "free will" is false, since all human choices are predetermined by the laws of physics?

We know from the scriptures that God can exactly predict the future, but we also know from the scriptures that we have our moral agency to decide our future. There must be a solution to this problem, but there is as yet no generally-accepted solution.

The Spirit and the Body

Everything we think and feel is probably correlated with some physical changes in the brain. And, really, this shouldn't surprise the LDS, since they do not believe that "mind"/"spirit" and "body" are two totally separate and utterly un-similar things (See Cartesian fallacy):

There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;

We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131:7-8)

Thus, in LDS theology there is no spirit/matter dichotomy. Spirit is matter, though less easily detected by mortal eyes. If a spiritual experience or a "thought" from our spirit/mind is to have an effect upon a mortal being, it's not surprising to find detectable physical changes in the gross "non-spiritual" matter which we can study. You won't detect the actor (the 'spirit matter'), necessarily, but you might expect to see the effect of the action (on the 'body matter').

Newtonian Determinism

A question that is likely to create an argument in any LDS Sunday School class anywhere in the world is, "Does God perfectly know the future?" Half the class will insist that he does, because the scriptures are clear:

O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it. 2 Nephi 9:20

The other half will insist that this is not possible, since this would destroy the free agency of man, which is also clear:

Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. 2 Nephi 10:23

But God’s knowledge is not really the question anyway. The real question relative to free will involves the nature of physical and spiritual law — is it deterministic or indeterministic?

The Universe is said to be "deterministic" if, given the state of the Universe at one point in time, there is only one state possible at a later point in time. The Newtonian world view was deterministic. It concluded that, given the present positions, velocities, and other properties of every bit of matter, field, and (we would add) spirit, the future values for these variables are completely specified. Thus, the orbits of the planets, the weather, the rise and fall of nations, or the outcome of every love affair is already determined, based on the current state of the universe. It is hard to see how free agency can exist in such an environment.

Quantum Uncertainty

The alternative to a deterministic Universe is a Universe in which, given the state of the Universe at one point in time, more that one state is possible at a later point in time. We call such a Universe "indeterministic." Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that the fundamental laws of the Universe are quantum mechanical in nature. In quantum mechanics, the present state of the Universe may precisely determine a probability distribution, but, ultimately, the future state of the Universe will involve a random selection from among the allowed possibilities. The future is always partially uncertain. This is the majority view of the interpretation of quantum theory, but it is not the only view. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states,

The scientific evidence for quantum mechanics is sometimes said to show that determinism is false. Quantum theory is indeed very well confirmed. However, there is nothing approaching a consensus on how to interpret it, on what it shows us with respect to how things are in the world. Indeterministic as well as deterministic interpretations have been developed, but it is far from clear whether any of the existing interpretations is correct. [1]

But does quantum mechanics do anything to help the situation relative to free agency? We must remember that quantum mechanics is partly deterministic — the determination of the probabilities for each possible outcome — and partly indeterministic — the final random selection of one state out of all the possibilities. Since the ultimate selection process is random, it is no different than the process of flipping a coin. The quantum world view, with each decision slave to the outcome of a coin toss, seems less conducive to free will than does the deterministic world view.

What Is Free Agency?

The existence or non-existence of free will has deeply troubled Mormon and non-Mormon philosophers for centuries, and the problem shows no sign of resolving itself.

One Mormon philosopher, Blake Ostler,[2] has suggested that there is a third possibility between determinism and indeterminism. This is the "creative synthesis" suggested by philosopher and theologian Charles Hartshorne. In this view, the moment of decision itself creates a new entity that did not exist in the previous moment, one that is affected by the decision process and that contributes to the outcome of the decision process in a deterministic but unpredictable way. This, it is suggested, is what we call "free will."

On the other hand, a Mormon physicist, Ronald Hellings,[3] has argued that Hartshorne’s description of "creative synthesis" sounds suspiciously like a simple non-linear process, a completely deterministic thing that engineers and scientists encounter and solve all the time. In Hellings’ view, free agency should be thought of as the name for the deterministic causes that arise inside an individual’s uncreated intelligence. Determinism is required, according to Hellings, in order to allow those causes to truly make the decision and not have it stolen away at the last moment by a random flip of an electron in someone's brain.

Notes

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line at plato.stanford.edu (revised 17 August 2004, last accessed 23 October 2006).
  2. Blake Ostler, "The Mormon Concept of God," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Summer 1983), 73.
  3. Ronald Hellings, "Determinism and Free Agency," a talk presented at Sunstone Symposium West, Los Angeles, California, 1988 (unpublished).