20 June 2007

Agents and Opposition

I rarely write out my talks when asked to give them at church, but since I have a translator here I decided to take it easy on him and provide him with a text to work from. Even so, I still when through two translators. Here's the text:

Today I have been asked to talk about our “freedom to choose.” My text for this talk is from Lehi’s lecture to his son Jacob in 2 Nephi 2:27:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great mediator of all men, or to chose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

2 Nephi 2 has long been my favorite chapter in the Book of Mormon. Coupling this chapter with a spectator’s passion for science, and a love of idle speculation, I used to imagine I had acquired a rather unorthodox view of agency. However, upon rereading the chapter I am now more convinced than ever that my crooked point of view is actually correct.

Philosophically 2 Nephi 2 is one of the most important chapters in the Book of Mormon. It posits a type of dualism, but one unique in a Christian context since the dualism proposed is divorced from the moral concerns of, say Manichaenism. The Manichaeans believed that life was an eternal struggle between good and evil, their heresy was in accepting the notion that evil might win. The dualism that Lehi proposes is oddly monistic since its primary requirement is the fact of opposition. Often times we think of opposition in strict moral terms, like the Manichaeans: the good opposing the bad, the just the injust. But this is not the case. Opposition is a generative principle and only involves morality insofar as creation itself is moral or immoral. Opposition is the very principle, according to Lehi at least, which generates life, for without it the world would “remain as dead, having no life, nor death.”

This principle of opposition is realized in a world populated by agents “both things to act, and things to be acted upon.” An agent, as I choose to define it, is a point in a nested hierarchy at which a decision is made (and here I am borrowing heavily from Kevin Kelly and his synthesis of every thing from biology, to robotics to cognitive studies). You and I are nested hierarchies, further nested within the larger hierarchies of ecology and culture. I realize that traditionally we like to make the doctrine of free agency a strictly human purview. For example, I am a free agent because I can chose whether or not to eat, while my cat is compelled to eat everything from lizards to snotty tissues. Were he a free agent, in our traditionally limited sense, surely he would not choose to gorge himself on snotty tissues. However, this is a mistaken view in my opinion. If we think of an agent in the terms laid out in the scripture, as a thing which both acts and is acted upon, then we see that my cat, as a hierarchy of agents, contains few, if any, inhibitory agents, other than satiety, which would act upon his desire to eat bleached wood pulp embedded with mucus. I on the other hand am endowed with a modicum of self-reflection, and whenever the urge to look for a midnight snack in the depths of the wastebasket might overtake me, inhibitory agents come to my rescue. As human beings we are blessed with the illusion of being in control. Granted, illusion is too strong a word, though strictly speaking, we are not in complete control of ourselves. Our digestive, circulatory, and endocrine systems quietly go about their business, allowing higher-level agents, such as worry or stress, to interfere as little as possible. As we learn more about the brain and human behavior we are discovering more and more of these agents that act below the threshold of consciousness. It has even been proven that the decision to do something as basic as moving an arm or a leg is made by the subconscious part of the brain before the conscious part of the brain has been informed. This would seem to contradict any notion of free agency, until we understand that higher-level agents are usually inhibitory. Lower-level agents act, higher-level agents act upon them. Basically your subconscious says to your conscious, “OK, we’re moving, do you want us to stop?”

Our free-agency is not the monolithic construct of enlightenment style “free will,” but is instead the complex interaction of millions, and possibly billions of networked and dependent agents. Given these facts we should think of our free-agency, and therefore our self-control, as negotiable, and subject to improvement with training, or to inevitable decline through neglect or disease. Surely with a little reflection we can see that this is in fact the case. This is what Lehi means when he says, after first declaring that we “are free according to the flesh,” that “all things are given them which are expedient unto man.” We have as much control as is expedient, that is, as much control as is convenient or practical. We have been endowed with the agents that allow us to make moral or immoral decisions, and also to reflect on how our decisions affect the world. My cat on the other hand has been endowed with the agents necessary to feed himself, and to enact his neurosis. Fortunately I have also been endowed with a squirt bottle, and with diligence and training I can strengthen or weaken certain of the agents acting within my cat. As the agents that tell him to eat used tissues become more strongly associated with the agents that inform him that he is suddenly wet and frightened, eventually the desire to avoid getting wet will win out. As self-conscious human beings we have been blessed with our own internal squirt bottle, and where that is not enough we have the guidance of the church, the encouragement of our leadership, the blessings of help and comfort from God and our fellow men, and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.

If we accept this point of view, it then becomes clear that our notion of good and evil, rather than being a question of essence—God being essentially good, the devil being essentially evil—is actually a question of placement and degree within the universal hierarchy of agents. Will we act as higher-level agents, favoring liberty and eternal life through the atonement of Christ? Or will we be acted upon as lower-level agents, subjects to captivity and death?