What if one day science proves we have no free will, or free agency? As we learn more about the brain, we find out that more and more of what we do is predetermined by the brain. There are some studies that show that before we consciously make a decision to move our hand, the brain has electrical activity in the area required to move the hand. This implies that our body had already decided to move our hand, and then put the idea in our mind so we thought it was our idea!
From an article in the Atlantic
Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
There are some that believe that a brain tumor in the UT Austin Tower shooter caused him to murder. There is also the case of a 40 year old man that suddenly developed an interest in child pornography. He had never had this interest before, and even started soliciting prostitutes. He was eventually caught and convicted. Then he started to have head pains.
From the above referenced article:
The night before he was to report for prison sentencing, he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, and took himself to the emergency room. He underwent a brain scan, which revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. Neurosurgeons removed the tumor. Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal.
The year after the brain surgery, his pedophilic behavior began to return. The neuroradiologist discovered that a portion of the tumor had been missed in the surgery and was regrowing—and Alex went back under the knife. After the removal of the remaining tumor, his behavior again returned to normal.
So was “Alex” guilty of the bad things he was doing? Should he have been excommunicated for violating the law of chastity? Or is sin only possible when there is free agency? What if there is a brain wiring problem for almost all the thing we consider morally wrong?
again from the same article:
Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we discover that much of what we do is hard wired in our brain. But then this goes against the whole gospel plan of free agency. How does the church handle these new medical discoveries?
If we believe in a final judgement with a righteous Omniscience God, then he/she will take all those factors into account. But then that leaves us on earth with our limited knowledge even less able to judge somebody, whether we sit on a jury at the courthouse, or a disciplinary council in the bishop’s office.
I recently watched the documentary “Three Identical Strangers” about the identical triplets who were adopted out to three different families as babies. Without giving too much away, I will say that they concluded that genes determine a whole lot about an individual’s life, but that the way a child is raised also plays a big part. I have some family members who have major behavioral problems because of the brain they were born with. I think that they still have agency, but I really believe that their deficiencies will be taken into account when they are judged for this life. This understanding makes me a lot more tolerant of people who are mean or lazy or whatever. We just don’t know what problems everyone has been dealt in this life, so it’s best to be merciful.
I have long wanted to do a similar post. I watched the documentary about NFL players diagnosed with cte, a brain disorder caused by too many football collisions. Some of them have violent outbursts that lead to murder and suicide. I have wondered how much their brain injuries have affected their actions. It will be an interesting day when they are judged by God as I have no idea how he will judge them if the brain injury was what caused their violent outbursts.
I also have a family member who almost qualifies as being not accountable yet is highly functional and independent within his sphere, which brings to mind the scripture in D&C 93 defining agency:
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
Without agency there is no existence. Logically therefore could someone be here in a mortality without agency? In my genetic makeup, according to recent DNA tests,
I have a predisposition toward allergies and respiratory weakness, therefore do I have no agency in regards to my choices in that area? Yes and no. The weakness is there and has been all life. It afflicts me as a thorn in my side.
Yet, by my very existence, I have agency. I choose how I respond to this predisposition toward weak lungs. Likewise, those with a predisposition toward anger, even toward murder retain their agency to respond to provocation.
I choose to control my allergies with medication. Do those with the predisposition toward anger and murder have a choice and a way to control that? My answer will lack authority since I do not suffer from that affliction.
Thank you for sharing this article and your insightful, thought provoking comments.
Biology plays a part.
Environment plays a part.
And individual choice plays a part.
For different people, the proportions might be different.
God can rightly judge these matters. But in our human societies, we must also make judgments, as best as we can, for our own protection and to teach others. We might become better at judging as we learn more (for example, maybe we should extend juvenile law to age 21?) — but even if imperfect, human societies have to judge as best we can with what we know.
I cannot accept any thesis that denies any human will.
won’t may be a better choice of words than can’t then
I like the similarities to your post a couple of weeks ago. I’ve heard similar stories to the those above. I can also recall a seminary teacher who once home taught a former stake president who had gotten Alzheimer’s. Almost monthly or weekly they’d have to pick him up from some hermit shack outside town where he’d be drunk as can be. There was little doubt in this seminary teacher’s mind the man was completely innocent in the eyes of God.
I have no doubt our brain cells (or the lack thereof), their condition, and their arrangement are all a huge part of judgement, and it does give me great reason to be a little less judgmental or at least more thoughtful and sympathetic in my own judgments.
Absent medical abnormalities, it’s difficult for me to see agency as anything but self-evident. Science obviously cannot factor in a spirit inside the body calling the shots either. When I think of some of the medical abnormalities hampering our agency I’m also reminded that the spirit and the body aren’t truly One yet. Until the resurrection, they’re thinly attached by comparison. Working with robots, I’ve also learned that the software/hardware connection isn’t always as seamless as we’d like to believe. Software may say one thing, and depending on the condition of the hardware, it can lead to some disastrous results. I think the spirit-body connection is comparable as far as mortality goes.
I still don’t know where I really sit on this, but I find some solace in that an expert on this scratches his head also.
To quote from my post a while back on free will:
I heard the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky comments:
I don’t believe there is freewill. I believe freewill is what we call biology that hasn’t been discovered yet.
I certainly can agree if you look back in history up till today, there is absolutely some truth in that statement. When was the last time someone said a person was possessed by a spirit? We usually consider this to be a mental condition today, but in centuries past that wasn’t the case and others assumed such a person was possessed by an evil spirit. I don’t know how much biology will explain all human choice in the future. I guess nobody knows for sure.
But what I find to be a hugely daunting task is how you’re supposed to you live your life thinking that way and even me, I am willing to write down and print there is no free will and here’s why. At some critical juncture of some social interaction I act absolutely as if I believe there is freewill. […] It is a whole lot easier to operate with a notion of agency.
At some point I have to stop thinking about it and decide what I am going to make for dinner before my wife comes home when I told her I was going to make dinner tonight.
Didn’t you see the Exorcist?
I’ve heard it said that “the brain has as much free will as the liver.” I think I agree with this statement and all that it implies. It’s a devastating conclusion to come to, but probably true, nevertheless. As I recall, the Atlantic article referred to above cautioned against talking about this disturbing subject too much, for obvious reasons! As for me, I find it fascinating that evolution has produced beings who actually believe that they have free will. And yes, on a day to day basis, I’m one of those beings!
“What if one day science proves we have no free will, or free agency? “
Science is not an actor that proves or disproves things. But I take your meaning; leave out “science”.
What if I DECIDE there is no free agency?
The possibilities are infinite or nearly so. I will feel absolved of responsibility and do what I want.
What if I DECIDE that there IS free agency?
The possibilities are infinite or nearly so. I will accept responsibility and still do what I want knowing I am free to choose it.
Either way there’s not a lot of visible difference in daily behavior.
Long ago I decided I am not a mind reader. I can see what you DO but not your reasons for it. Required and forbidden behaviors are things that can be seen, and done or not done. God can afford to be more understanding. “A tumor made me do it” may be a medical fact, but whatever he was made to do, it was done.
Things like prison sentences depend heavily on what you think such things accomplish. If it is a penalthy then a persons state of mind does not matter much; penalty (and reward) flows from behavior. On the other hand if you view prison as merely a school of social responsibility inculcation, then as soon as a person becomes socially responsible he is freed. In that case when the tumor is removed he’s suddenly socially responsible.
Elements of both exist in my opiniion; penalty must attach to bad behavior BUT moderated by social utility and redemption. Mercy versus Justice. I do not excuse the slaughter of pedestrians by a drunken driver because he was intoxicated, but I might excuse it if he suddenly had an aneurysm in his brain and he blacked out while driving AND there was no reason to suspect such a thing. In other words, a bona-fide accident for which no reasonable precaution could predict or avoid.
What Libet showed is much more limited than normally portrayed. At best it shows some fast deliberations aren’t free.
That said I tend to see most of the free will debate as largely a semantic issue. That is given certain meanings what does free will require and is it likely it exists given that meaning. The problem of course is that people don’t all agree upon the meaning. Roughly ⅓ of people adopt a meaning that is akin to what’s called agent libertarian free will and that’s incompatible with foreknowledge or determinism. The other ⅔ tend to adopt a meaning that is compatible and thus for them free will isn’t an issue. (Those ratios are roughly the same for philosophers – despite what one might here compatibilism is the most popular position)
Now there are other arguments for agent libertarian free will. Blake Ostler in particular has argued passionately for free will (and against strong foreknowledge) in a doctrinal context. His main argument is that punishment by God is retributive and that this type of punishment only works if individuals deserve the punishment. Individuals can only deserve it if there’s agent libertarian free will (that is agents are the ultimate cause of their judged choices). The problem is that if you reject God’s judgements as retributive then the argument falls apart.
Clark writes “That said I tend to see most of the free will debate as largely a semantic issue.”
Concur. Not only that, but people tend to argue both sides (or more than two) according to what is convenient or advantageous.
A Mormon view of free agency is somewhat limited in scope. “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other, Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Agency exists for pretty much the sole purpose of each spirit deciding which master to serve. This is the most fundamental of all Mormon teachings in my opinion. Choice. It is what separates Mormonism from orthodox Christianity; the latter consisting of an omni-everything benevolent creator even of his own enemy.
In my opinion, a benevolent omni-omni God cannot create free agency because everything he causes everything and there is nothing but what he caused.
God presumably does have wants which to me means he’s not quite as omni as all that; there is at least one thing he cannot just wish into existence, and that’s your free-will sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Joshua 24: 15 And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
It is absolutely crucial that you be free to make that big choice, and for it to be relatively free you must be tempted by Good and tempted by Evil. People born and raised in Zion must still face Evil. It cannot be avoided; it will come to YOU if you seek to avoid it. Still, it is foolish to approach Evil (tempt evil) unprepared or with pride in your heart and mind.
Slight tangent — “Lord of the Rings” considers that phenomenon. Hobbits fetch a magic ring that corrupts everyone that touches it; even the Hobbits, but less so Hobbits because their desires are much simpler and not as much drawn to gold or influence over others. In the story, no other person has the strength of character to resist the ring’s seductive power and destroy it.
Lord of the Rings touches heavily upon agency and free will and ways in which free will can be subverted or at leasts limited in scope that your choices are severely limited. The enemy of God works most diligently on choice itself; to make you think you don’t have a choice when usually you DO, to make you feel guilty and ashamed so that you choose to turn your back on God when he has not turned his back on you, to trick you into making unwise choices. Not even the enemy of God can deprive you of choice but can certainly trick you into making bad choices.
I’d add that I think the Mormon concept of agency is pretty unrelated to the debate in philosophy about free will. Agency as used in Mormon rhetoric seems pretty clearly about outside interference in having live choices. That is it’s primarily about political interference although one could I suppose also see Satan’s plan in Abr 3 in terms of the nature of the bodies that were being proposed. Although there I’d argue that the problem one could raise is that bodies aren’t sufficiently balanced. That is genetics allows psychopathy and a strong propensity especially among men towards violence. The usual criticism there is that the range of behaviors incentivized by our bodies reduces agency. (In the sense Paul uses it of the spirit being willing but the flesh putting up barriers)
To your ontological critique, I don’t see why a logically omnipotent God creates agency in the sense of ontological origination of choice. There’s no logical problem that I can see. I reject such a conception of God, but I don’t see it as a problem for say a more traditional theist. Now I think for Mormons God can’t create free will in some sense. Indeed our entire conception of the plan of salvation seems premised upon that inability by God.
Clark writes “I think for Mormons God can’t create free will in some sense. Indeed our entire conception of the plan of salvation seems premised upon that inability by God.”
While I don’t exactly follow all those big words, I have a sense that you have an important detail backwards; it is *because* of free will that the plan of salvation became necessary. It ought to have been trivially easy for God to arrange things so that no fall can occur, no redemption needed, presto, no need for Earth go straight to judgment do not pass go or collect $200. k 1/3 of all souls ever to exst are damned from the start. No soup for you, come back one million years!
But in the sense that God cannot create free will I tend to agree; for a thing that is created (ex-nihilo anyway) is entirely the product of its creator. On the other hand, God can *find* spirits or intelligences that already exist, have always existed, and provide them a home and see how it goes with them.
So here we are looking for a coherent theory as to how and why that came to be while allowing for a supreme being. It need not be omni-omni super transcendental God; merely supreme, someone that has run the course and knows the turns and is willing to whisper advice from time to time.
Michael, it’s because God is limited in how he can transforms us that the plan of salvation is necessary. I want to avoid “free will” as that is itself a problematic term. (No one agrees upon what it means) There are different ways to read Abraham 3 here. Some read Satan as trying to do something that was impossible in taking away our practical agency. Others see it as very possible but that it would have simply not worked (we’d not have been transformed by the experience). Most see Satan getting confused over what the goal of salvation was. That is he confused the rules as the goal rather than rules as a way to the real goal of transforming humans in a way other things wouldn’t. So maybe he could save everyone according to the rules, but he couldn’t transform them by that type of salvation.
Typically Mormons see that limit on God as being due to free will in some sense. However as I said I don’t like that term as people mean such different things by it. It leads to equivocation fallacies.
Suppose that the biblical Abraham had sacrificed Isaac on the altar; then later, you were on the jury to assess the evidence to convict him or not. What would you do? Presume that biblical citations on the topic are accurate; and that Abraham’s frame of mind is also presented to the jury. Would you convict him for murder (first or second), manslaughter, reckless endangerment, a lighter sentence, not guilty for reasons of insanity, acquit, or other?
Will your response differ if you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, other?
If me, I could not acquit. If God instructed Abraham to do it, God may chose to pardon Abraham in the after-life.