Monday, November 5, 2012

Life is a test, only a test...

"We [the gods] will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them." (Abraham 3:24-25).

The above is one of the quintessential scriptures for Mormons on the meaning of this life.  Another is:

"[A]fter this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed." (Alma 34:33).

Particularly poignant is that "For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment." (D&C 19:10-12).  In some kind of trick-wording, God is saying that punishment is to last forever in the way God (by his name) lasts forever.  

To Mormons, this life--from birth to resurrection & judgment--is primarily about proving our faith through obedience, and secondarily about learning/growing closer to God to become like him.  The reason most people fail (i.e., aren't mormons) is because they choose evil over righteousness.  And when they commit a finite crime of choosing momentary evil, they just might receive endless punishment, if it weren't for God's stepping in. Does eternal punishment for a finite 'crime' make sense?  This is an elaborate scheme for when we purposely choose evil.

But do we?  Does anyone actually willingly choose what they believe is outright evil?  Most of you have seen studies indicating that brain damage can coincide with onset of violent behavior, in what was a normal, passive, loving person prior to the damage.  Is biology the only source of violence?

LDS teachings hold that we have a thing called agency which allows each of us to choose between right and wrong. LDS doctrine on agency is fundamental to everything.  Without agency & choice, the entire plan of God would be frustrated (2 Nephi 2:11-13).  In fact, without the opposition that allows choice through agency, God would even cease to be God (2 Ne 2:13 & Alma 42:22-25). (It's not explained how God was God before there existed Satan.) 

However, as is discussed (sometimes argued) in other sects of Christianity, while we are free to act, are we really free in our choice?  Do you have free will? 

At this point you probably "phht!" me and sigh in frustration.  How could anyone question whether we are free to choose?  We feel it deeply, deeper than our bones; that we are authoring most of our life.

But I didn't say free to choose.  I said free in our choice.  I am not talking about freedom of choice.  There is a subtle difference that I think many people don't make. 

A robot can be programmed to choose when it reaches a fork in its path.  Its choice is conditional and the parameters are based on its programming.  The robot makes a choice.    Unless a subroutine blocks other code, we can say it is free to make a choice when it comes to a fork.  It doesn't create the fork.  It doesn't even create its own internal conditions ("desires" that push it one direction over another).  If its programming blocks that choice under certain circumstances or if its programming does not have the conditions or information needed to make a choice, it will hover and pace at the fork not knowing what to do until conditions change or it flips a virtual coin (assuming its programming includes the option of random choice whenever no other conditions are met).

Where did the robot obtain the ability to choose?  Duh!  From its programmers!

Where did humans get the ability to choose?  We have will--the freedom of choice. But can we will our will?  Can we create the desires, conditions and programming behind our choices? Where do those come from, if not the brain, genetics and environment?   Mormon teaching by some prophets explain the fundamental will to choose--agency--is a co-eternal property of children of God, something we have in common with him and always will have.

But is this agency different than a robot's programming to choose?  Free will is more than the ability to choose (that's called "freedom" here).  Free will is the independent source of choice, free of external (divine or other) influencers.  Without that independence, could there be a true test of God's children?

Think about it this way, if you could rewind the universe and re-watch it play, would an intelligent person choose differently, given everything material (brain, environment, etc) is equivalent? If so, what is it that would be choosing differently since it wouldn't be the brain or different conditions? Remember, you didn't choose the structure of your brain at birth, the genetics you received or the environment you were born into.

Many will argue that the difference between a robot with programming to choose and us is our consciousness.  We feel we make choices. The robot is not conscious.  True.  If we are just moist robots, our programming sure makes us feel special anyway. Could we be confusing warm fuzzy special feelings with something more magical?

What is consciousness?  Does it make the choice?  In fact, there are data showing strong evidence that conscious choice is an illusion [1-3 footnotes].  That choice happens, according to readings from EEG & fMRI sensors, 100s of miliseconds to seconds before we are conscious of it.  Is our conscious self the one deciding?  Not according to latest evidence.

Mormons believe that there is a part of us that is pre-ordinate to our genes and birth/earth environment. They call this "intelligences", and this is the agent that has free will (even eternal and separate from God).  But one has to wonder how the intelligence agent chooses when everything else that influences choice--genetics, environment, the intelligence (or lack thereof) of others around us, God, Satan--all the other factors beyond our control cannot truly choose.  We cannot change our genetics, we cannot change God or Satan or really even forcibly alter the mind of others (not without really good pharmaceutics or waterboarding).  Nor did we choose the environment in which we were born.  And every decision you've made from that moment is dependent on the environmentally evolving brain, step-by-step ad-naseum until you are what you are, where you are, and how you are today.  What in all of that did you really choose that is independent of all those steps over which you truly had no control?

"Our intelligence/soul," you may answer.  An agent such as a soul or the Mormon intelligence that is proposed to act will by necessity follow rules (or be undetermined & random).  Where did those rules (programming) come from?  Did you choose to be a particular flavor of intelligence?  No.  If it exists, it is still something that either is what it is or it was organized by God into a soul for you. Every other factor that made the conditions of what you are is outside of your control.  And neither are you in control of the very core of yourself that might be "co-eternal".

But the choices you make are based on this (hypothetical) core soul, the genetics, your birth environment and the subsequent infinitely complex evolving interaction of your genetics/brain with the changing environment. 

God said, in LDS scripture, "Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning." (D&C 93:38).

So if you in fact also started with a clean slate, then there were no differences between each of us before we arrived on mother earth. If that is true doctrine, then what is the test?  To see if we will execute the wetware inside our moist robotic brains?  What is God really judging us for?  Our most base/core level programming (intelligences) is not our doing.  The organization of our spirit bodies was God's act.  Our genetics were just dumped on us. We were born whereever we were born and we get whatever family we get.

The only real test seems to be: did God organize the intelligences into spirits and match them with the right genetics and environment?  The test is on God, not us.  That is, if you believe in LDS scripture and place a little thought into it.

This life is a test.  How would you grade God so far?

[1] I. Fried, R. Mukamel, & G. Kreiman, 2011. Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Neuron, 69: 548– 562

[2] J. D. Haynes, 2011. Decoding and predicting intentions. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1224(1): 9–21.

[3] P. Haggard, 2011. Decision time for free will. Neuron, 69: 404–406.


  1. I suggest you read you some Blake Ostler on libertarian free will or visit some of the past discussions on the blog New Cool Thang on this subject and return and report.

    1. Blake's argument seems to be: "downward causation requires emergence of an agent that makes a causal break from the underlying causal base that gives rise to the agent's powers...An eternal intelligence, it seems to me, just is such an agent. Nothing else fully causes its existence or to be what such an intelligence just is. In fact, I contend that only such an eternally existing entity could be such an agent cause...the Mormon world-view is the only game in town."

      However, as I said in the above blog you didn't choose the emergent agent, you didn't fashion it. And claiming it is eternal doesn't solve the problem of God testing us over agency. If the only solution is the intelligence, then nothing that happens on earth changes the condition since the only factor that is supposedly (suspect) agent is the intelligence. Furthermore, the differences between each of us are either due to genetics, environment or our intelligences. If the latter is the one that separates our agency into an active state, then we are being tested on something that is our eternal makeup and for which we didn't initially or ever choose. I would ask Blake, from where does the "programming" or conditions or desires or interests of the intelligence/eternal agent come? We didn't choose or create these programmings, conditions, desires or interests. According to LDS doctrine/Blake, they just are and always have been. Any changes to these properties of the agent are from conditions which we didn't choose either--genetics, spirit bodies, earth environments. Any change would not indicate the test, just the additions outside our control. The test is still unfair. The logic fails. Blake didn't explain anything.

    2. Additionally, the idea that something always exists without explanation is a key problem in theology. God of the gaps is now intelligent agents of the gaps when it comes to explaining "free will". We can't explain the universe's existence, so we postulate an untintelligle being called God to create it. But explaining how God arrives is more dificult than the universe he supposedly creates. Same happens with free will as an eternal principle. There's a regression about how it explains anything without a creator. It's a chicken and egg problem.

      Evolution nicely throws out the need for the regression of agent and god. Emergence is bootstrapped through wetware. Programming is in fact reducible and theoretically deterministic. And if we are just moist robots, our programming sure makes us feel special anyway, and let's just go with it. However, don't confuse warm fuzzy special feelings with something more magical. That's what we did with the holy ghost burning bosom faith promoting stories. It kept some of us Mormon far too long. We don't need to replace one ghost story with another.

  2. We will return and report. Come, Michael.

  3. Good article. As a biologist AND an ex-Mormon, I find the idea of nature versus nurture is pretty fascinating - I still can't figure out what is the result of my genetic heritage and what is the result of my environment.

    1. Yes, Postmogirl. The intertwining of genetics, brain biology and external environment are strong evidence for emergence through evolution. Genetics, brain and environment are hard to separate because in fact, they evolved intricately together.

  4. I agree with the gist of it, but you can have a level playing field with siblings and end up with "righteous" an "unrighteousness" contestants. I suspect that some environments are more nurturing to a righteous disposition however.

    1. The problem with a level playing field and still having individual differences/dispositions is that you cannot account for why any individual should be judged for those dispositions that they themselves didn't create/choose.

  5. You do realize you are chasing your tail, right? If your blog is about your flexing your purported intellect, why attack just the Mormons. If you don't believe in any God, why attack the Mormon belief? Because that is all you are familiar with? Why not study all religions and attack all equally?

    Did you ever consider that agreeing to agency is agreeing to all that it ensues? Having freedom to choose means sin, and is a chain reaction. I think we knew to a degree what we were getting into by coming here. I think we, like our own children insisted on going. We thought it would be a cake walk. Just like our children when they become adults think that being an adult is easy...that is until they have been doing it for a while. It really isn't as complicated as you'd like it to be.

    1. The stance that Mormonism takes, an irreducible immortal particle of the soul, is an interesting take on the free will dilemma. I think most other views of free will are more susceptible to arguments because they don't address where the actual individuality directing choice derives outside of being created as such by God in a mystery-miracle. The hand-waving is obvious. I don't feel the need to spend time on that.

      However, the intelligences argument moves the mystery-miracle to a more abstract level that is harder to see unless you examine it more carefully. In the end, it has the same problems. An irreducible intelligence agent must, by definition, follow rules. Those rules are not self-imposed because the agent is immortal. Therefore, the rules just are and do not convey any individual responisbilty of choice. According to Mormonism, all other attributes added to the intelligence agent were given by god through organization into a spirit, placed in a body with god-allocated genetics and birth environment, and all emergence thereafter based upon these factors outside of the intelligence agent's control.

      So, while the approach in Mormonism stands out, it still comes down to the same problem. Utlimately choice is predicated on rules/programming of the intelligence-agent/spirit/genetics/biology/environment that was never chosen by us. As such, our choices are not at some core any more ours than those of The Programmer, who some call God.

      The so-called life test is an illusion.

    2. Why not attack Mormons? They are the only ones stupid enough to claim that American Indians are Book of Mormon people of ancient Hebrew ancestry.

      The people I'm with in Indian Country say that God and life beyond this is a mystery. They say that if anyone claims to know, run from them because they will only try to control you. Nobody knows. The most important thing is to preserve a future for life on earth.

      If you don't like mormonism being "attacked", well that is too bad, just get over it.

    3. The Indians talk about God, and life beyond. So, they experienced something. Their history is verbal, and human. Their history therefore may not be accurate. Sure, people can attack Mormonism, and I can defend it and say why people shouldn't attack it or if they are going to attack, attack all religions.

    4. "Their history is verbal, and human. Their history therefore may not be accurate."

      What part of what I said is so hard to understand? If anyone claims to know the answers to the mystery, they will try to control you. That is what I said. What is wrong with you? This is not about whose history is accurate or not. But one thing is for certain, the Book of Mormon is not an accurate history of the American Indians.

      Not one of the 566 federally recognized tribes in the US have formally accept Mormonism as their official tribal religion. It is insane to think that they would be better off believing in a 19th century fabricated psuedo history.

      There is no need to attack all religions. Mormons are the only ones who claim to have a history of the American Indians. Mormonism is harmful to the American Indians. Mormonism is racist. It deserves to be attacked. Why in the world would I wish to attack the Episcopals, who are siding with the rights of indigenous people? Or the Unitarian Universalists who have renounced the Doctrine of Discovery? Or the Methodists who have formally apologized for Chivington's massacre? Or the World Council of Churches that are advocating so strongly for the American Indians?

      But Mormons do deserve to be attacked until they renounce their fictional history of American Indians. When Mormonism renounces and discards the Book of Mormon, then I will no longer attack their teachings.

  6. In my family, there are smokers and non-smokers. All have tried smoking, but half dropped the habit. Some studies of siblings indicate an ovetactive dopamine receptor in the brain decreases the chances of overcoming addiction in one family member while the other doesn't have the same problem. Over-coming the natural man would mean more than just not sinning, but it would also mean our willingly playing a game of cards knowing that the deck is stacked against us, giving Satan the upper hand. Sounds like a great game; I'll bring the beer.

  7. Thought-provoking post and comments. I like the precept, "I think, therefore I reason, choose, evaluate consequences, choose some more--in spite of nature/nurture as well as because of them....and genetics, and magic spells.

    I personally think life is a test is an incorrect description of the purpose of all life existences. I think it's all about progression, using nature, nurture, genetics and our own reasoning to go further as a being, and at whatever pace/paces we individually choose. If nature dealt me a much weaker brain than David's, I can only progress cognitively at a much slower pace. Yet if I progress, I have become a better me. Is more progression expected of David than me? I would say that God or no God, that isn't the point. The point is, am I growing, improving, evolving, developing -- and if so, does this make me happy, joyful, enlivened? And if I'm not growing, improving, evolving, developing -- does this make me feel unhappy, diminished, grumpy? Either way, it remains my individual choice. Mendele said they could never imprison his mind. Perhaps we progressed/evolved before mortality through many spheres of existence, learning how to overcome what holds us back, or to embrace these things and triumph through them -- whether they be within ourselves, genetics, environment or all the above. Maybe we progress, or not, as a being here in mortality the best we can with the cards we are dealt. Some with a bad hand progress further than those with a great hand. Look at amputees who mountain climb or compete in marathons while able-bodied people become couch slouches and grow fat and weak physically and mentally. It's still up to the intelligence/spirit/body to choose. All the other "programmed" stuff influences choices, but in the end we choose our path through said programming. Our choices aren't programmed, IMHO. Certainly they are, indeed, influenced by our heavenly/earthly/genetic/etc.factors. But they cannot determine, nor override our ability to choose. We choose anger/patience, love/like, whatever/whomever, and so on according to us--programming often be damned. Surely you all recognize times you've done something out of your ordinary. I love when I do that. I just don't think god or the cosmos programmed me to that minute detail. I like believing I think, I reason, therefore I am not a Terminator. But to each his programmed own! :)