Wednesday, November 30, 2005

God’s Garden

In a comment on a recent post of mine on agency, Mike W. asked if the form of determinism to which I subscribe is ‘defined by an external modifier’ or allows for an ‘internal motivator.’ Here I explain why I don't think a ‘blank slate’—in which people are completely determined by external conditioning—could be the whole story in either a mortal or eternal perspective.

In a purely mortal perspective, I am sympathetic to E. O. Wilson’s position discussed a few posts back: human nature was forged over millions of years of evolution, leaving us an inheritance of deeply-seated emotions and “biased channels of learning.” I would call these influences on us ‘internal’ because they are integrated into our individual biological selves. However, because our ‘selves’ exhibit some plasticity, contemporaneous external conditioning still plays a very important role, and external events can have lifelong impacts: childhood training, fatal accidents, and so on can have a big say on our ultimate mortal fate.

A Mormon eternal perspective adds two things that fundamentally change the deterministic factors that ultimately affect an individual’s final status. The first factor is the existence of an uncreated, eternal, individual ‘intelligence’ beneath whatever biological and cultural legacies we have inherited. This intelligence can be compared to a particular seed that, given the right conditions, will grow into a particular kind of plant. The second factor is reservoirs of time and divine power beyond the grave.

In this eternal perspective, the Father would eventually bring each individual intelligence to its full potential. He would use agents where he could but would expend his own individual time and resources if it were necessary, on earth or in heaven, to provide the conditions for each individual to (deterministically) unfold to its greatest potential. Time and divine power beyond the grave would allow any earthly biological or cultural factors to eventually be overcome. Hence the only factors that ultimately matter would be the uncreated individual intelligence and God’s provision of the needed conditions for its development. Whether I had good or bad parents or Church leaders, had ever heard the gospel, had been killed prematurely, etc. would ultimately not matter to my individual fate. (Whether my parents had been good or bad to me, whether someone shared the gospel with me, etc. would play an important role in determining their individual fate, however.)

I’m far from convinced that any perspective beyond a mortal one corresponds to reality; but if there is an eternal perspective, the version that makes sense to me is that God’s works are like a garden that in the end is perfectly tended: taking the many seeds he is given—which have a range of inherent potentials—he ensures that each is ultimately able to unfold to its best possible final state.

7 Comments:

Christian:

Thanks for the post. I agree whole-heartedly with your concept. It is this internal motivator that I am so grateful for and I believe sets us apart from other animals, allowing us to build up (and unfortunately tear down) others and the world around us making our existence better and yet more challenging. 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/01/2005 12:48:00 PM  

As Geoff already told you, I defend a VERY similar view of agency is the extended argument  between Blake Ostler, Geoff and myself.

I consolidated my views into a series of posts at my own site which can all be found here

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/01/2005 04:46:00 PM  

Mike and Jeffrey, I'm glad to know there are at least a couple of people in my corner on this. I would've thought there would have been more complaints, but I suppose most of those that feel strongly about this have already said their piece. I look forward to looking through the old discussions---thanks for the links, Jeffrey. Wasn't there also at least one massive discussion at Clark's blog? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/02/2005 09:53:00 AM  

On why I expected complaints: two reasons.

One is that people seem have a powerful psychological attachment to feeling "free" in the sense of "undetermined." "Free" meaning "autonomous" ought to be enough, but something primitive in us may not be sophisticated enough to see the difference.

A second is that people tend to find repugnant the notion of people having an inherently and unalterably different potentials. This can be mitigated by positing that as limited humans we are utterly unable to make such judgments about eternal outcomes, and make any efforts to do so taboo. We can do this as a mortal practical matter while still retaining a deterministic position in principle.

By the way, the inherent differences that would ultimately matter in eternity would not be anything we think matters here, like academic intelligence, talent, etc., but only things like a willingness to repent and open oneself to reprogramming by the Savior's atonement. This is something that ultimately would have to come from within. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/02/2005 10:03:00 AM  

Christian,

I am trying to clarify your position. What role does agency, in the Mormon sense, play in God's Garden? In giving my whole-hearted agreement, I assumed that the intelligence possesses (inherently) the autonomy to chose its actions (but not the consequences thereof). Is this the role you see for agency? Blake's comment here  left me wondering if I was misreading or misunderstanding.

 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/14/2005 03:04:00 AM  

Mike, I don't know if Blake has read this post yet. I think it would require more interaction between Blake and I before we understand each other's position. (In particular I should read the work he has already carefully prepared.) But still I was a little surprised you agreed with me so readily!

To me agency means what you say, that individual intelligences have autonomy. To my understanding there can be autonomous behavior that is also deterministic, simply the playing out of its uncreated nature.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/14/2005 10:36:00 AM  

Christian: You're not really a determinist. You assert that people reject determinsim because we don't want to feel like we're finished or our judgment is done before we have any say about it -- I know that I feel that way (the alternative entails all of the problems of Calvinism and predestination). But once again what you say just won't jive with determinsim. You say: "By the way, the inherent differences that would ultimately matter in eternity would not be anything we think matters here, like academic intelligence, talent, etc., but only things like a willingness to repent and open oneself to reprogramming by the Savior's atonement. This is something that ultimately would have to come from within."

Where does this choice to open to the Savior come from? Where is the willingness to repent initiated? You seem to believe that we initiate this decision internally -- that we have a say over this choice and it is not merely the upshot of what went before (indeed, isn't that the entire point of repentance, that we are not stuck in our pasts?). So when you say that this decision "ultimately" must "come from within" you are adopting agent causal libertarianism. I just don't know what you mean by "simply the playing out of [the intelligences'] uncreated nature." Does that mean that like a dog I just act according to my nature without thought or choice? You see, saying that we act out of our nature explains nothing except that we act has humans when we act. But saying that our choices ultimately come from inside of us and are caused by us is just agent causation which entails LFW.
 

Comment by Blake | 12/23/2005 12:12:00 PM  

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