Friday, April 11, 2014

The Theory of Agency

The universe exists as an act of will, not of God's will, but of its own.

For any readers who are philosophically educated, what follows is one possible view of reality. If you dislike it enough to reject it out of hand, you are free to just move on. I'm not interested in discussing differences of opinion over unprovable assumptions. If you want to pick on the Free Will Theorem, make sure you've understood it thoroughly, first. I'll provide links. Otherwise, if there are logical or factual errors in my extensions, I would love feedback and discussion.

I am reasonably certain that experimental quantum physics shows that our universe--at least on a very small scale--is not deterministic. No one can predict the outcomes of certain experiments, and it seems that is true because certain properties of some subatomic particles are not determined until you make a measurement. Somehow, those properties don't exist in any particular state until you do something requiring that the property have a value. That's my rough take away from the Kochen-Specker Theorem, which is probably rather imprecisely stated. I, like some others, had thought this indeterminism left a loophole to explain things like free will, or how God could interact in the world without leaving a trace, but it bothered me to force God's hand into a tiny, quantum box. I prefer a God whose hand can be seen in everything, not one who acts in teeny-tiny spaces that are always in danger of further shrinkage.

A few years ago an acquaintance explained to me that indeterminism is a problem for belief in free will. If something happens randomly, how can you ever hope to control it? If what I do is governed by a random event, it's even harder to say "I chose that" than if I take in the inputs like a computer and respond in some logical way. This acquaintance introduced me to Compatibilism. Compatibilism was supposed to give me a way to reconcile determinism and a belief in free will. I went and did some reading. I found the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and read a few articles:

Arguments for Incompatibilism
Incompatibilist Theories of Free Will
Free Will
Causal Determinism

I know I didn't understand everything in these articles, although I managed to make sense of large portions after some hard thinking. I think I understood the following:
  • Causal determinism, or the idea that every event depends completely on previous events, is the most popular viewpoint among philosophers.
  • Compatibilism in some form is the predominant explanation of free will held by philosophers who believe in free will. With selected foundational assumptions (which may be true), some very particular, non-intuitive definition of free will is not logically inconsistent with determinism.
  • Many (most? all?) intuitive definitions of free will are incompatible with determinism. Many definitions which invoke some non-deterministic element result in logical inconsistencies. 
  • Other, more subtle, variations of Incompatibilist theories of free will preserve more intuitive understandings of free will. These all have elements which may be questionable, but no one has managed to demonstrate fatal logical or experimental inconsistencies in them.
  • Determinism is unproven, and there are substantial reasons for doubting its universality.
  • I don't care for philosophies that disbelieve in free will or assume that it is an illusion.
  • There are observable and logical limits on what free will can mean. Some of these limits are quite severe, and we are much more limited in our choices than most of us are inclined to believe.
From this reading and thinking, I couldn't settle on a philosophical view of free will that was completely satisfying. The Incompatibilist theories, while not disproven in all cases, seemed improbable in different ways. I couldn't find a mechanism for the choices except for random quantum events, and randomness destroys free will. I couldn't believe in the determinist universe seemingly required by Compatibilism, since it seems to fly in the face of numerous quantum experiments. I came to a conclusion for myself: If free will is to be preserved, it needs to be a fundamental law of nature, sort of like Relativity or Gravity.

Free Will as a Law of Nature seemed like a comfortable possibility, to me, and I gave up on the topic. I knew I wasn't equipped to investigate it further. I couldn't prove its reality, but I was confident it was logically consistent and probably not any more provable or disprovable than Determinist and Compatibilist claims. In addition, Mormon scripture is quite clear that Agency is inviolable. Even God would not (can not?) take it from us, and we appear to have had it even before coming to this earth. The chances that anyone would investigate the Law of Free Will seemed impossibly remote, but I could wait a decade or two or three to see where philosophers went. I was convinced that physics had already shown the universe to be non-determinist. I had my free will, and didn't much care if someone else thought it was an illusion.  It turns out I was wrong, though. Two rather famous figures had recently spent a decade arriving much more rigorously at my same conclusion.

The free will theorem of John H. Conway and Simon B. Kochen states that, if we have a certain amount of "free will", then, subject to certain assumptions, it can be proven that some elementary particles also have free will. Here are some links where you can learn more about it:

  • Wikipedia: An excellent brief summary, including links to some of the relevant, original papers.
  • A series of six, one hour lectures given at Princeton where John Conway explains the theorem and some of its philosophical implications. I really enjoyed listening to these, and they are quite accessible. You don't have to be good at math to understand the vast majority of what he says.

One thing Conway makes clear, repeatedly, is that the Free Will Theorem does not disprove determinism. It does not attempt to. Conway, like I, thinks that determinism is unproven and that there are good reasons not to believe in it, but I, like Conway, am not going to push my non-determinist beliefs on any determinists in my audience. It also doesn't prove that there is very much free will. What it proves is that if experimenters have enough free will to choose among 33 or 40 buttons independently of each other, then some elementary particles have enough free will to choose among 2 or 3 different states in a way that isn't determined by previous events. It also proves that this is a choice--made by the particles, or the universe at the location of the particles, or something--and not a random event. This is the real, philosophical key, for me. The particle's behavior is neither predictable, nor random. It is not determinist, nor indeterminist in the random sense. Just as I thought philosophical belief in free will might require a new law of nature, I think we need a new word for this type of indeterminate choice. The particle does not choose randomly, it chooses arbitrarily. I will continue with this after a technical aside.

Technical Aside

There have been two significant, professional criticisms of the Free Will Theorem. Cristian Wuthrich misses the point, a little, from my perspective. The Free Will Theorem is not intended to prove that the universe is indeterministic, and yes, it postulates indeterminism from the beginning. What it shows is that, if a limited indeterministic theory of free will is correct for humans, then it is correct even for subatomic particles. You can't give humans choice without giving some choice to electrons, too.

The second criticism attacks the Free Will Theorem on its MIN axiom. This took me a long time to figure out. The claim is that for a stochastic indeterministic system, there is no reason that MIN must be true. Simon Kochen apparently said they were interpreting MIN incorrectly and applying it too loosely, but the authors disagreed. After going over it several times, I think I understand, I think I see what Kochen meant, and I think I agree with Kochen. You can't simply assign the values chosen by the elementary particles as probability distributions. That is too soft. The particles choose a discrete value every time--not a probability distribution of values.

I admit to not having a perfect understanding of this controversy, and if the Free Will Theorem has a flaw, it is definitely in MIN. If you are smart and interested enough, maybe you can identify it or explain to me fully why the criticisms of Goldstein, et al. are correct.

Agency and LDS Thought

Agency has been a key part of Mormon thought since the beginning. It is found repeatedly in the Book of Mormon:
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. 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 choose captivity and death. . . (2 Nephi 2:26-27)

God "has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will" (Mosiah 2:21) 

It is echoed in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in the Pearl of Great Price: 
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him . . . (Moses 4:3)

The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency (Moses 7:32)

That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. (Doctrine and Covenants 101:78)

It has been taught by prophets throughout our history down to today. Here are some strong examples from Brigham Young and John Taylor:

"This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice." Brigham Young (Deseret News, Oct. 10, 1866, 355)
"The volition of the creature is free; this is a law of their existence and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God. He has placed life and death before his children, and it is for them to choose. If they choose life, they receive the blessing of life; if they choose death, they must abide the penalty. This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice, and God brings forth the results of the acts of his creatures to promote his Kingdom and subserve his purposes in the salvation and exaltation of his children." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.62)
"Are we not the framers of our own destiny? Are we not the arbitrators of our fate? . . . It is our privilege to determine our own exaltation or degradation; it is our privilege to determine our own happiness or misery in the world to come." -John Taylor, in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: John Taylor [2001], 141

In addition to, and within, these familiar themes are a few intriguing ideas. One is that God judges us only according to what we can really choose. We are judged by our works and by the desires of our hearts. Joseph Smith saw his brother Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom, and we are told that those who would have accepted the Gospel, had they had the chance, will receive the full glory of God, in time. Mormonism does not hold us responsible for things outside our control, even if other humans (ourselves included) often do.

There is also the idea of the dust of the earth, and the stars obeying the will of God. This may be simply figurative language, with the laws of nature representing the will of God, but the creation account in the Book of Abraham allows for it to be something more:
And the Gods ordered, saying: Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the earth come up dry; and it was so as they ordered; And the Gods pronounced the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, pronounced they, Great Waters; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed. (Abraham 4:9-10)
A third idea is that God would cease to be God if He violated agency. The most obvious reading is that of Brigham Young, that God will not violate His own laws. That may be true. Maybe it would just make God inconsistent, and not the being whom we worship. But maybe there is something more, and God himself is bound by requirements of agency outside of Himself. Maybe God would cease to be God because His power is inextricably tied to agency--or maybe His very existence is inextricable from agency. These possibilities seem within the realm of Mormon possibilities.

Agency is THE creative power

Returning to discussion of the Free Will Theorem, it seems that we need a new term to break us out of the determinist/indeterminist stalemate. According to the Free Will Theorem, the quantum events at the foundation of all things in this universe are neither random nor predictable. I would suggest, instead, that they are arbitrary. Most of the time, what choice is made doesn't matter--left or right, up or down, red, green, or blue--it doesn't matter. So particles choose arbitrarily, and the behavior is indistinguishable from randomness. But the Free Will Theorem provides room for something more.

I'm going to introduce some very simple, basic, uncontroversial thermodynamics, here. The energy for creation we see around us is the result of interactions of subatomic particles. This is true back to moments after the Big Bang, and I would guess it is true all the way back to the beginning of our observable universe, but maybe with some modifications. Couple that with subatomic interactions being the results of arbitrary will, and it's not much of a stretch to think our very existence is the result of agency. The stuff that is us somehow chose to become us. Maybe not very intentionally. Maybe it was something like is described in the Doctrine and Covenants: "For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light." (88:40) Amazing properties can emerge from self-assembling systems of very simple components. Just look at us. Through this idea of arbitrary but not random choice, there is room in the Free Will Theorem for both the agency I believe in and for the hand of God in our lives. The problem with randomness destroying free will is gone. The problem with forcing God's hand into the tiny box of quantum events is gone, because God is able to act through the sometimes obedient will of all that exists around and within us. The Free Will Theorem provides this subtle but spectacular shift. Agency and God are not to be found in a nudged quantum event here or there. They are to be found throughout the entire fabric of existence. This agency is what created our earth: "And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed." (Abraham 4:18)


  1. You'll like my recent paper on panpsychism delivered at this year's MTA conference (video to be posted on our YouTube channel soon). :)

  2. Got some good feedback on this from someone who understands the philosophical side of the free will debates, better. Take two (at some future date) should be clearer and more accurate. Maybe I'll even work on some illustrative graphics or tables.