Growing up as a Mormon, I was probably more familiar with and thought more about the term “Free Agency”  than my non-Mormon peers. Once I reached my teens some of my peers did start to talk about “Free Agent status” relative to sports stars, but that is a bit different!
I really love that this had me thinking rather deep early in my life. But that deep thinking often kept coming to the same point about free agency. I would often think about why I would make one decision while another person would make a different decision.
Why why why?
First I have to admit I was one of those kids that did ask why quite a bit. But more than verbally asking, I wanted to figure things out. I love things mechanical and when I was quite young almost anything my parents would throw away, I would pull out of the trash and take it apart to figure out how it worked. Eventually I figured out how to occasionally fix some items. I was keenly curious and still am today.
I remember hearing a story in one of the church lessons about 2 brothers that had an alcoholic father. One turned out to be an alcoholic like his father, and one was sober and stayed away from alcohol altogether. They were both asked why they turned out like they did. Both sons answered the same, “What do you expect with a father like mine?” To me this didn’t help my young mind at all. I assume the intended moral of the story was that each of these sons made a choice. The alcoholic son simply made a bad choice and we just simply need to always make the right choice. I was fine with the right choice – I didn’t have a rebellious attitude. But my mind immediately wanted to know why one son made the bad choice and one made the good choice. I was taught that predestination wasn’t something we believed in, so that line of logic was a no go. I was also taught that, “He [God] knew not only what each of us could do, but what each of us would do when put to the test and when responsibility was given us.” So God decides what trial each person is going to be given. I learned that how we react to these trials will determine if they are damned or exalted. But I was also taught God already knows if it is a trial beyond our means to resist. If he never gives us a temptation we can’t resist, then why are some people unable to resist the temptation?
Then I learned that before we were born, even before we became “spirits” we were “intelligences.” OK. So why is one intelligence formed in such a way that they become Mother Teresa and another becomes Adolf Hitler?
No matter how much I kept digging to find the answer, I couldn’t shake that it seemed that God made one son able to make the right choice and one other was not able to make the right choice. My young mind keep focusing on fairness. That fairness fixation probably comes from the fact that I have a lot of siblings and we certainly had love mixed in with “survival of the fittest”. If you didn’t get seconds quickly at the dinner table, you didn’t get any seconds.
In Mormonism we love to make judgments about actions even before this life. For most of Mormonism entire races were deemed to be “slackers in the pre-earth life”. And it wasn’t limited to just certain races. Valiance in the pre-earth life determined if you would be sent into a body with mental handicaps and/or even to a less desirable country. That sure feels good for a person born in a prosperous country and with no mental/physical issues. And if you were also born into a family that was a member of the one true church, how could someone not feel like, “Dang, I must have been really good!”?
Choices and Consequences
As I got older I was taught that, “You can make a choice, but you can’t choose the consequences”. This made sense and for a while helped me answer my question of why individuals were either good or bad at making the right major decisions in life. We are the result of the decisions we make. Sounds right. Just like in a game of chess, one move limits the future possible moves going forward. So mentally pulling that thread a bit led me back to the same question. The only difference wasn’t focusing on the big life decisions, but instead the question focused on why some people make the right “little” choices early in life that set them up to make the right big choices in life. So after a while this only kicked the same question down the road to these smaller decisions earlier in life, but essentially it was still the same question. Why did God make one person able to make the small early decisions correctly while someone else just couldn’t resist grabbing a cookie from the cookie jar when mom wasn’t looking and setting themselves up to be an ax-murderer 20 years down the line. And if God knew Johnny couldn’t resist taking that cookie, then it didn’t seem like God was just.
It gets more complicated
In the last few years I have been digging into the science of the brain and human behavior. I have become fascinated with it. I did a post a few months ago about The Self-Righteous Mind. Since reading that book, there are several stories that have had me thinking about free agency again.
Story #1 – The Doctor made me do it
Just the other day I listened to a RadioLab podcast that told a story about a man that suffered from epilepsy. He had an operation performed that physically separated parts of his brain and this helped him to be near seizure-free. Seizure-free until one day he woke up in a wrecked car and he realized that he had another seizure while driving. So he had the operation again and once again it seemed to help. The only issue was that he became hyper-sexual, including downloading child porn. Lots of it. He indicated that it was such a compulsion that he would download specific child pornography, delete it because he knew he didn’t want it, then download it again. He would do this over and over and over again for hours some nights. The feds eventually found him. But a doctor claims that it was the surgery that caused this and this behavior has been replicated in other primates when they have this same operation.
Story #2 – The remedy is worse than the disease.
Many of you may have heard the story of Suzy Favor Hamilton (see ABC’s 20/20) Her early life could probably be summed up as a very normal girl that was an exceptionally gifted runner. But she did have some emotional issues that kept tripping her up when the pressure was on. She went all the way up to competing in the Olympics where she collapsed and pretended to pass out. A few years after her Olympic appearance she was diagnosed as bipolar. She was given medication that seemed to really help, especially keeping the depression under control. But the medicine apparently altered her in other ways. She ended up leaving her very young daughter and seemingly good solid husband because she had an insatiable desire to be the best high-end escort in Las Vegas. This was a sudden and dramatic shift in her behavior. Eventually she went off that medicine and those urges went away.
Story #3 – So now you know what it is like to be a teenage boy
An acquaintance related how she had some post-menopausal issues so she was referred to an Endocrinologist to receive hormone therapy. As usual it takes some adjusting the hormones levels to fit the person’s body. So she was going in weekly doctor visits. One week she quickly noticed after the doctor’s visit that she was full of energy. Oddly she went from her traditional role of wanting sex much less frequent than her husband to wanting it much more than he could even tolerate.
She mentioned this on the next visit to the doctor and he looked over her chart and said, “Oops, Looks like I added an extra zero at the end of the amount of testosterone I wanted the nurse to give you. So how did you like your week of being a teenage boy?” She realized that she had subconsciously felt judgmental towards her teenage sons and couldn’t figure why they couldn’t just keep their mind off girls and sex. After this she felt quite a bit more for her teenage sons.
Story #4 – I changed my mind, or was my mind changed?
I heard Neil deGrasse Tyson mention in passing that he had a friend that was transgender and decided to go through the process of sex reassignment. The procedures were started that would lead up to the physical sex-change surgery. Neil’s friend said that just after they started the hormone therapy said that the shocking part was how much this had a mental and emotional effect and stated, “I no longer believe humans have free will.”
- What role does free will play in our lives, physically and spiritually?
- How do hormones, physiological changes in the brain, and other neurological factors alter our ability to exercise free will?
- Are there other experiences like the ones above that make you think deeply about free will?
 This was before correlation started pushing for the term “agency”. I am not sure why, but I guess the correlation committee has free agency to call it what ever they want.
A bonus to anybody that got the pun with the picture at the top. It is a “freewheel!” One of the main parts of a “multi-speed” (i.e. “10 speed”) bicycle. It is what allows you to stop peddling while the bike is moving and not have the peddles continue to turn.