Friday, November 25, 2005

Agency in Nature, Agency in Humanity

In an interesting thread on theodicy by LisaB at Feminist Mormon Housewives, the question of whether ‘nature’ or ‘the elements’ have ‘agency’ arose, and at one point several scriptures in the Abraham creation account describing the ‘obedience’ of various subsystems of creation were cited.

While the term “obey” is in fact used in the Abraham creation account, if the scriptures are meant primarily to teach us about the meaning of human life, then I'm not sure we should read too much into the word “obey” telling us something fundamental about the nature of everything in a scientific sense. “Obey” might simply be a user-friendly, non-scientific way of expressing the idea that the Gods worked with or even simply watched over complicated systems—systems operating by natural law, not moral agency—until they were satisfied that they would be stable over the time scales they intended for human history.

Or instead, we could presume a tight connection between ‘agency’ and the scriptural use of “obey,” but turn it on its head and give it a Spinozist twist. Say we know those systems referred to in the Abraham passages operate by natural law; then “obey” is simply a description/definition of the orderly and stable operation of a complex system; then the passages are also teaching us, indirectly, that our own human ‘obedience’ and ‘agency’ are also ultimately nothing more than the orderly operation of a complex physical system operating completely and deterministically under natural law. (I’m guessing this perspective won’t garner many takers!)

(A few other self-centered notes on the FMH thread: I entered it with a quip about the male-centric phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” being used on a feminist blog, but was then persuaded to give a more substantive take on theodicy here and here. I engaged the question about the elements having agency here.)

21 Comments:

I tend to agree that we ought be careful about reading too much into the scriptures. Having said that though animism or quasi-animism has a pretty long history in the church going back at least to Orson Pratt and his oft discussed ontology of matter.

The Spinozist view, which isn't that different from the Leibniz view, is interesting. Although I think it simply reduces to treating mind as a determinate system. It's the determinism that I think makes people uncomfortable with both. 

Comment by Clark | 11/25/2005 02:47:00 PM  

Unfortunately I didn't closely follow the free will discussions that have gone on in the Bloggernacle, and remain largely ignorant of standard philosophical arguments. (BTW, when I refer to something "Spinozist" I'm typically making an iconic or cartoon-like reference, making (almost) no pretence to be saying something genuinely consistent with his detailed philosophy.)

I gather that many (most?) are uncomfortable with determinism, but for some reason I can hardly conceive of anything else that would not involve unpredictable arbitrariness, and that disturbs me more than determinism. If I were to end up damned I would prefer to know that it was the playing-out of the uncreated nature of my intelligence, instead of being the result of something arbitrary. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/25/2005 08:40:00 PM  

Christian:

Is this form of determinism that you are comfortable with (and you suppose others to be uncomfortable with) defined by individual agency/choices determining precisely an outcome or is it defined by an external modifier? Skinner's behaviorism supposes that the only reason we do things is because we have been conditioned to do them, either positively or negatively. Is there an internal motivator that induces correct action, and therefore beautiful outcomes, independent of conditioning?

I think I believe as you do that what we get in the afterlife is a precise result of our decisions and obedience and application of agency plugged into the equation of natural laws. I too am uncomfortable with the possible arbitrariness; I am just trying to understand all the laws upon which the outcomes depend. This brings up one of your fundamental questions again: How do we learn these fundamental natural laws?

 

Comment by Mike W. | 11/27/2005 01:43:00 AM  

Determinism is strict. What about probabilistic or statistical obedience? Coins "obey" the binomial distribution. Exam takers "obey" Gauss's distribution. So whoops, there goes personal responsibility.

Actually, nothing accessible in this world is fundamentally deterministic, according to a scientific world view. Even the non-quantum-mechanical explanation of the ideal gas and chemical reaction rates is fundamentally about probabilities and lacks determinism. So I think the world you hypothesized might be "probabilistic" as much as it is "deterministic."

Comment by MT | 11/27/2005 03:22:00 AM  

Mike and MT, thanks for your comments. I don't have time to respond this morning, but I'll ponder them during Church and respond this afternoon. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/27/2005 09:03:00 AM  

Mike,  your question led me to outline a longish answer I may post separately this week. My short answer is that I think internal factors are more important than external ones. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/27/2005 06:21:00 PM  

MT,  my response to your comment also waxed too long and will likely become a post of its own soon. My short answer is that you are short-changing determinism. One point is that there are systems that are probabilistic when examined on a coarse scale, but both deterministic and predictable (at least in principle) on smaller scales. A second point is that predictability and determinism are now known to not be the same, and must not be confused. In particular, unpredictability does not imply indeterminism.
 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/27/2005 08:10:00 PM  

You make me see now I did speak a little hastily about the ideal gas. The idea of Maxwell's demon is about it's deterministic aspect. We learn about it probabilistically because that's what mere mortals have the wherewithal to do analytically, but I forgot that people (like yourself?) do use supercomputers to numerically predict/explain how ensembles of many atoms evolve by simple deterministic rules and while accounting for each atom individually. So I'm not sure that the ideal gas was a good thing to invoke. Let me try again to contribute something useful: Note that potentially decisive processes in the brain, for example, rely on small numbers of molecules or small numbers of sub-cellular structures such as neurotransmitter vesicles. These things behave erratically/stochastically. To the extent aspects of cognition are nonlinear or chaotic, as you probably know better than me if you're a working physicist, small deviations may cause large and unpredictable differences of outcome. In cognition, those outcomes might be the conscious and/or unconscious choices an individual person makes. So there's a scenario in which the probabilistic nature of the small and brief scale has effects on the human scale. Granted, I had to invoke chaos. Meanwhile, there's evidence that species populations rise and fall chaotically, so there may be a fundamental element of unpredictability to ecological systems too.

I suppose it all depends what your alleged deity counts as an incidental detail, because who cares if only the incidentals are unpredictable? e.g. Perhaps the alleged deity couldn't have cared less whether the smart creatures he/she/it planned to evolve would turn out to be placental mammals, and maybe he/she/it couldn't have cared less whether these creatures would be ready to take dictation at precisely 2000 BCE, as opposed to a few tens of millions of years plus or minus. Maybe the alleged deity didn't even care that these smart creatures would arise on a planet evolving around our star, in this galaxy, or even in this universe with our particular mix of particles and physical laws. But if you've got more time than is available in the current universe to await a particular but extremely vaguely predicted outcome, how much credit do we give you for your prediction? 

Comment by MT | 11/28/2005 12:33:00 AM  

I'm not familiar with the details of processes in the brain, but as long as we're talking about things in the classical (as opposed to quantum) regime I think things would only be stochastic to the extent one is not able/willing to analyze all the degrees of freedom. Also, I'm planning to mention chaos in my fuller response, but for now remind again that the concepts of determinism and predictability must be separated.

The classical Mormon God ought to have been able to bring about humans in a particular form (i.e. his form), and also to predict behavior on scales sufficiently fine to predict the loss of the 116 pages of BoM manuscript, and names given to particular children (I'm thinking of the prediction in the BoM of Joseph Sr. and Jr.). For all my commitment to determinism, I think predictability at this level is a very tall order. I'm skeptical. It seems much simpler for me to believe such things are human interpretations after the fact rather than manifestations of God's foreknowledge. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/28/2005 11:28:00 AM  

BTW, in the simulations I work on we don't follow individual particles. We're satisfied with ensemble averages. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/28/2005 11:44:00 AM  

"I think things would only be stochastic to the extent one is not able/willing to analyze all the degrees of freedom."

I guess you mean we wouldn't need Einstein's statistics to understand Brownian motion if we could see and track individual atoms buffetting the pollen grain. I agree. That's what I meant to convey when I invoked Maxwell's demon and retreated from the suggestion of my first post that I thought the ideal gas somehow contrasted with strict determinism. And yet if you have a system with extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, and one of those conditions is the momentum vector of a particular pollen grain at a particular time, then your system's behavior will be unpredictable. If that system is the weather or your mother then the unpredictablity is important. Interesting to learn we're skirting into the territory of your work. Sorry to suggest I thought you might feel a need to follow every atom individually in a complex system. I know it's only folks like the biochemists who resort to such pedestrian maneuvers.  

Comment by MT | 11/28/2005 01:48:00 PM  

Also sorry if I'm preempting stuff or forcing you to rewrite what you were planning to say in the forthcoming post. I'm underemployed and over-competitive. 

Comment by MT | 11/28/2005 02:00:00 PM  

I agree about the unpredictability, just wanted to emphasize that it can nevertheless be deterministic.

No need to apologize. I enjoy the discussion, and anyway it approaches rudeness of me to be saying in effect "I don't want to talk about that right now." Sorry about that, but sometimes I have to say something like that to prevent blogging from overrunning my life. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/28/2005 02:30:00 PM  

Poacher.

Okay, so let's talk.

I don't really care right now if elements, quarks, etc. have agency. I want to know how much human beings do. It's easy in my sheltered, raised in the church, relatively wealthy and comfortable (globally and historically) existence to believe that I'm really chosing. In retrospect it looks much more reflexive. Is that deterministic? Tell me about determinism. Talk slow and in little words. 

Comment by LisaB | 11/29/2005 02:21:00 AM  

I am indeed a confessed and unrepentant poacher.

By 'determinism' I mean that there is an unbroken chain of cause and effect: given an initial state of things at one instant of time, the state of things at a short time into the future follows from the initial state according to definite rules.

I wonder if by "reflexive" you mean that someone is a 'blank slate' completely molded by the environment experienced during their lifetime. Determinism does not imply this.

Disclaimer: You should be aware that I'm no philosophical expert. If you were to read the Wikipedia articles on Determinism  and Free Will (I just glanced at them but haven't read them) you would probably know a lot that I do not know. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/29/2005 12:02:00 PM  

"Poacher" was definitely not intended as a slur. :-)

Do you believe that human beings have free will? 

Comment by LisaB | 11/29/2005 01:24:00 PM  

Don't worry, I didn't take "poacher" as a slur. I imagined you elbowing me and smiling while saying it.

Before answering your question as to whether I believe humans have free will, I quote the first sentence of the Wikipedia article I linked above:

"Free will is the philosophical doctrine that holds that our choices are ultimately up to ourselves. The phrase "up to ourselves" is vague, and, just like free will itself, admits of a variety of interpretations."

I did not hardly read past this, but I think this is sufficient to suggest that a 'yes' or 'no' answer to your question would not be particularly meaningful. I'll try to go a little beyond 'yes' or 'no,' but not much. Let me respond by posing questions you should have asked instead. ;->

If you were to ask me, "Do you think human beings' individual choices could really be different than they actually turn out to be?", I think my answer is "No." (Here I am showing my determinist colors.)

If you were to ask me, "Do you think human beings have control over their own actions?", I think my answer is, "To a large extent, yes." 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/29/2005 04:41:00 PM  

What about motives? 

Comment by LisaB | 11/29/2005 06:54:00 PM  

I'm not sure what you're getting at. Explain the problem further. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/29/2005 08:45:00 PM  

Christian: I seriously doubt that a Spinozistic determinsim can be made to look in any way like the free will that is at the heart of Mormonism -- so essential to the Father's plan that we fought a war over it before coming here. I have written at length about this issue is Dialogue and if you would like, I will e-mail to you may article that addresses the issue -- or if you like, I'll post the entire blasted article here. The bottom line is that our salvation must be up to us in the sense that we are not caused by forces or causes outside of our control to choose to accept God. If determinism is true then it is not up to us whether we choose God; rather, whether we choose God is merely the upshot of the state of the world before we were born or ever thought about it or made a choice. That isn't Mormonism, it is Calvinsim -- and I for one am loath to trade the gem of the gospel for a mess of pottage that you appear to offer.  

Comment by Blake | 12/14/2005 01:06:00 AM  

Blake, I should first say that my use of the label "Spinozist" is more iconic than technical. I explained why I chose it in my opening post .

I look forward to reading your work.

In the meantime regarding what you've said here: I agree with your statement "The bottom line is that our salvation must be up to us in the sense that we are not caused by forces or causes outside of our control to choose to accept God", but I disagree with your subsequent statement "If determinism is true then it is not up to us whether we choose God."

I suspect that the meaning of phrases and terms like "up to us," "out of our control," and "determinism" require careful elucidation (as I'm sure you know much better than me). I tried to explain my point of view further in a subsequent post, which I'm not sure you had a chance to read. Hopefully this post will explain why I think it's not inconsistent to agree with one of your statements and not the other. If not, perhaps you can point out my error, or perhaps I will discover it upon reading your work. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/14/2005 10:29:00 AM  

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