What part of the brain is agency located?

A massive foundation of Mormon thought and theology rests on the firm rejection of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will and who will not go to heaven before the end of someone’s mortal life. Rather, we espouse the idea that we are free agents unto ourselves, and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling on an individual level. God cannot force anyone to heaven, and He coaxes us through love and kindness.

This idea of agency permeates our theology more than many Mormons might realize. It is our solution to the Problem of Evil (and a better one than most Christian theologies can offer). It’s also the basis of our rejection of Original Sin, a very important Christian concept (and also the basis of our rejection of infant baptism). It’s really quite the game changer.

Which then makes cases like Phineas Gage hard to, well, process and understand.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who lived in the 1860s. During work, he was struck by, ironically, a large iron rod, and by struck I mean it went clean through his head, destroying his left frontal lobe. Whereas before he was a most conscientious worker, a kind person, and a devoted family man, he became erratic, irresponsible, and seemingly incapable of making any kind of good decision. His professional life suffered greatly, as well as his personal life. In essence, though Phineas Gage the biological organism survived, it’s arguable that Phineas Gage the personality had long been destroyed.

Phineas Gage is used often in psychology textbooks around the world as the  classic example of how personality, as well as the ability to make decisions, is often rooted in biological causes.[1] This also raises some very profound theological questions for Mormons, specifically, (1) did Phineas Gage lose his agency?, (2) how easy is it to hamper the use of agency?, and (3) how much is agency connected to biological constraints outside of our personal control?

To address the first question, I believe most Mormons would say that severe brain damage certainly leads to a loss of agency, especially when it’s accompanied with such drastic personality changes. This falls into line with the idea that mentally handicapped children, for example, cannot exercise full agency and so fall under the category of “without the law” and are automatically covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ (per Jacob and Moroni).

The second question falls into more chilling territory. Situations such as children dying at an early age (before the age of eight) and children born with mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are what some might call “extreme” cases. Outside of these unusual circumstances, the Mormon standpoint argues that the vast majority of people in the world still can and do exercise their agency. But can someone else take it away? Gage’s condition came about by an accident, but what if it was intentional? The thought certainly seems frightening.

Of course, there are less extreme implications. What about age, such as dementia? As people get older, and some develop signs of dementia, does their agency diminish? As our understanding of psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to manic depressive disorder to psychopathy to just plain old neurosis, and their connection to real deficiencies in the body rooted in the physical realm (and not just an attack of a spiritual or more ethereal emotional nature) increases, how do we judge their effects on agency? Is someone truly free if they suffer from dangerous mood swings? And if psychotropic drugs solve the problem, it brings up a new problem, which comes to port full steam with the third question.

As Mormons, we acknowledge that agency can be taken away for biological reasons. We’ve already mentioned early childhood death and mental disabilities. We also acknowledge that substances which alter our brain chemistry can rob us of our agency, which is where a big defense for the Word of Wisdom comes from. Addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and most illegal drugs will steal away our ability to make decisions, be our own masters, and also to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.[2]

From here, it’s really not a large leap of faith (or logic) that there are reasons we lose agency that might not necessarily be our fault. We’ve already discussed psychological disorders, such as depression, dementia, manic depressive disorder, and psychopathy, which all often have deep biological causes.[3] But we have not yet discussed the plasticity of the brain in reaction to not just other chemicals (via nicotine, caffeine, or Percocet) but also to emotional events. For example, we acknowledge that children (and adults) who undergo traumatic, stressful events suffer some kind of psychic, emotional damage. How in control (or, in other words, how much agency) does a Vietnam veteran suffering from terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really have? And if a teenager who has had a troubled past suffering consistent abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual, or a combination) falls into trouble, or has a difficult time trusting authority figures or making good decisions, how much really lies in the fault of the teenager?[4]

People will accuse me of trying to absolve blame from guilty parties, but that is not the point (though that is a good question to consider — if we acknowledge that agency must be present for true guilt to also be present, how much guilt should we assign to those who may lack some grade of agency?). There is a more fundamental, troublesome consequence of what we’ve observed to be true as far as the human brain is concerned: If agency is such a fundamental part of God’s plan, why did God make agency such an incredibly fragile thing? A person’s ability to choose can be stolen away by a freak accident on a railroad, and, in some cases, people are not born with the capability for agency at all.[5] What are we to conclude when God presents a plan where agency is paramount, and yet creates conditions in which so quickly it can slip out of our grasp without any fault of our own?

I present not these questions to argue against the Plan of Salvation (I am a huge fan of the Plan of Salvation), but rather I point out these questions to perhaps fill in gaps that we have left unfilled, or to re-examine what we believe to know about the plan in order to truly account for who is accountable. Justice and mercy cannot be fully exercised otherwise, and we may unwittingly be condemning too many of our brothers and sisters for actions that may possibly be out of control. In fact, it’s arguable whether we really have much control at all.[6]
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[1] Whenever I mention to people in church that I enjoy studying psychology, I often get suspicious looks. One member asked if it was possible to be a good, believing Mormon and a psychologist at the same time. I believe that it is potentially world-turned-upside-down, status-quo-challenging questions like these that makes psychology unpopular amongst a church with a strong, rigid, hierarchical structure and obsession of eternal doctrine consistency.

[2] This seems to suggest that an ability to commune with God could be based in a biological component (if biological substances can hamper Spirit reception, certainly that means Spirit reception is based somehow biologically). This would explain how many of my friends who suffer from depression mention that they have never had a prayer answered in their entire lives, despite (very) desperate attempts to do so.

[3] I say “often” because of depression. I understand that it is common for people to feel depressed, especially after the death of a loved one, or some other similar traumatic experience. This depression definitely has a biological component, but often goes away on its own. This is very different from the deep-seated, extremely debilitating depression that has strong biological components that simply cannot be “prayed” away.

[4] I have often had people tell me free will does exist; otherwise, how could you have two different people in the same situation but grow up to be so different? For example, some people who come from abusive families vow to break the cycle of violence (and succeed) while others try to break the cycle of violence (and don’t succeed) and others simply (sadly) continue the cycle of violence unhampered. Certainly, free will plays into the occasion. Well, perhaps not entirely. There is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) which regulates the breakdown of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In The Personality Puzzle by David Funder, “A gene that promotes the action of MAO in breaking down these neurotransmitters seem to help prevent the development of delinquency among children who have been maltreated (Caspi et al., 2002; Moffit, 2005).” While this doesn’t mean everything is determined by genetics, it does suggest that even those success stories who overcame difficult origins against all odds may have had help from their biological makeup, something outside of their immediate control, and the inverse should be true — some people’s genes seem to simply stack the odds against them even more.

[5] The trickier problem occurs not in people whom we readily acknowledge to have no agency, but people who may have only been born with (to put it crudely) 50%, 40%, 30%, or even just 15% agency than the average person. Where do we draw the line between accountable and unaccountable? While judging is strictly for the Lord and we are told to refrain from such activity, the cold, hard truth is that the ecclesiastical church must judge, specifically for disciplinary reasons (though also for activities like temple recommend interviews). And when someone is disciplined or denied blessings, rumors start and harsh, hurtful judging begins, even if the fault may lie in “faulty” genes, such as someone born with Down Syndrome.

[6] There’s a fascinating cognitive experiment which recording the typing speed of professional typists. A most surprising result was that the typist would actually hesitate (albeit, for only milliseconds) before typing a typo (that is, hitting the wrong key). However, the typist would still make the typo. This suggests that the brain understands for those split milliseconds it’s about to make a mistake, but for some reason (momentum, perhaps?) makes the mistake anyway. Theologically, the results mirror Jesus’ charitable observation on his overzealous apostles that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. This also resembles (in an exaggerated way) the one instance where no person has any choice in the matter — we will all sin. It’s a decree from God; it’s what makes the Atonement necessary in Christianity. In this one area, we must all abdicate our agency, or at the very least, understand that there may be more powerful biological (fleshy?) forces at work here that override any pitiful attempts on our part to exercise our agency.

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3 Comments

Filed under philosophy, religion

3 responses to “What part of the brain is agency located?

  1. Gammapod

    I recently read a very relevant article on this topic, you might want to check it out: http://goo.gl/RSqRk.

    WOW this is a long comment. Feel free to skip to the end to see the short version.

    This is relevant, so bear with me:I like to think of myself as two beings combined into one. One is a hyper-intelligent ape of the species homo sapiens sapiens, who wants nothing more than to eat, sleep, and derp around all day. The other is a divine spirit from beyond the stars, who doesn’t remember how or why he came here, but is now sharing the body with his smelly, lazy primate friend. I like to think that the voice I hear in my head is a combination of the two, but it may just be the spirit (kind of scary to imagine that I’m the monkey, so I try not to).

    Anyway, mormons believe that one of the reasons we came to earth is to gain a body. Why are physical bodies so great? I can’t say, because I can’t remember what it was like without one. But I do know that we had agency before we came here, because of the third of us who decided to not come. So if we had the ability to choose our actions without a body, how could a damaged body prevent us from choosing?

    I think that from the day we were born, the biological and spiritual pair of bodies started working together to make decisions. In other words, your physical body is now half of who you are. It isn’t just some fleshy robe that you wear to interact with the physical world. And if the decision-making part of your physical body (the brain) is damaged, then of course you’d become a different person, at least in part. And a different person might make different decisions. So why worry about what someone would do if they didn’t have Down Syndrome? You might as well wonder how you would act if you were a different gender, or if you were born in a different part of the world, or if you had spoken out against God’s plan in the pre-existence.

    Let me completely change tracks. Let’s say you flip someone’s “evil” switch on, and they start lying and stealing. Have you taken away their agency? Mormons like to say that a murderer takes away the agency of his victim. If that applies here, then you have just removed the victims choice to want to be good, so I guess yeah, you’ve taken away his agency. But is that really possible? I submit that you only have the power to alter his physical brain, not his spiritual one. Perhaps all you’re really doing is weakening the spirit’s control over the body, so the dumb animal has more say. And if that’s the case, what’s the criteria of God’s judgement? Does he take any of this into account, and base judgement on the spirit’s intentions? Or does he judge you solely on your actions? This is stuff that no mortal will ever know, so I guess there’s no point in continuing this train of thought.

    The only way any of this makes sense (to me) is if each individual makes his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The people around Phineas Gage thought he was like a completely different person. But did *he* feel like a different person? Did he realize that the choices he made afterwards were different than what he would have done before? More importantly, if I was in a similar situation, would I realize that I was different?

    Well, guess what: I am different. I’m a different person than Phineas Gage. I’m also a different person than me from yesterday. And I’m certainly a different person than I was before I was born. So I’m forced to assume that God pays attention to who we are when we make our choices. And that’s the whole point of the plan, so that God can watch us change. If people always stayed the same, God would know who was good beforehand, and the plan would be pointless. It’s not our job to account for who’s accountable, and justice and mercy will be fully exercised regardless of our decisions. All we can do is make decisions that we think are good.

    When people talk about agency (including me right now), it sounds to me a lot like meta-gaming, like we’re trying to crack the system. That’s really not what we’re here to do, though. In fact, if we figured out the plan 100%, it would probably be rendered worthless and we’d have to start over again.

    To sum up my opinion: it probably doesn’t matter.

  2. Ruthy Stapleton

    Cool! Very interesting post and very well-posed questions. I won’t take the time to write a well-thought out response, but I’ll just say the one thing that popped into my mind as I read your question regarding the fragility of agency.

    If agency is so crucial to the Plan of Salvation, why would God make it so easily affected or taken by others?

    It’s not agency itself that is fragile, but the vessel which caries our agency while on earth. Mortal life, an important training ground for the eternities, and a crucial step in our progression, is so fragile and so easily taken by others. One could ask why God, in his wisdom, would make our bodies so frail – what if someone is killed before they have experienced marriage, parenthood, or had the opportunity to reach their spiritual potential on earth, etc? I guess the plan looks different for everyone as we have different amounts of time on this earth, and unique bodies with a unique set of trials.

    So while I can’t say why, I can take comfort in the fact that all these examples of hampered agency you mentioned are biological. Can’t we assume that those whose agency is taken from them (to whatever degree) in this life will have it restored to them when their bodies (and brains) are resurrected and perfected?

    • Ted

      You definitely have a point in that our bodies are fragile, even if it’s something that’s so important to the plan of salvation. I agree that greater free agency, either through righteousness or the correction of biological frailties, will be a huge point of the life after this one. Learning to exercise agency within our biological limits is, I think, a huge part of this life right now. The biggest ramification when thinking about this is, in my opinion, the fact that you really can’t judge anyone accurately (unless we invent some kind of Agency Detector).

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