Category Archives: philosophy

Zen and the Art of Slicing Virtual Fruit

I recently got the Fruit Ninja app a million years after it came out because it was free in the app store because I am a cheapskate like that. My toddler son, of course, quickly discovered this new game and wanted to play with me, so we sat, him in my lap, the iPad in his lap, slicing fruit.

He opened up a new game in Zen Mode, which is, I guess, just a bunch of fruit falling down that you have to slice for a while (which is, in a nutshell, every game mode in Fruit Ninja). However, my son decided to take this Zen Mode and turn it into legitimate, infuriating Zen practice. Every time I would try to slice a fruit, successful or not in my attempt, my son would quietly pause the game, and restart it. Over and over, he did this, and I found myself inexplicably frustrated beyond proportion. Why would my son not allow me to just cut the stupid fruit as it popped up on the screen?

And then I realized, how appropriate for a “Zen Mode” game. Every time I gave into my impulses (impulses conditioned over decades of gaming) to cut the fruit, to mindlessly perform an action without any real cause, reason, or understanding, my son would start the game over. “Again!” I could hear him say in an uncharacteristically gruff voice, forcing me to sit in meditation, watching the fruit fall, resisting the monkey mind to act and simply let the fruit fall.

If you have Fruit Ninja on your electronic whatchamacallit thingy device, I suggest trying this. Set your device on a stand, where you can see it clearly while seated in (half-)lotus position. Open Zen Mode. Let the fruit simply fall. Refuse to take action. Resist your monkey mind. If you are as restless and deluded as me, you will find this non-activity immensely and disproportionately difficult.

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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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How to Train Your Own Campbellian Archetypical Hero

I loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon immensely. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt very complete, very satisfying as an overall story, even if it was originally made for children. It wasn’t until about a week after watching it that it hit me — How to Train Your Dragon is the classic archetypical hero’s journey, more than you would originally think.

Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of spoilers in this post, so watch the movie if you haven’t already and stop reading.

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." - Joseph Campbell

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." --Joseph Campbell

HTYD starts out by introducing the hero of the story — Hiccup, son of the Viking chief. It turns out that Vikings spent a lot of their days building up a seaside pastoral/horticultural/fishing community that fell prey to constant dragon attacks. Like the archetypical hero, his father is famous and strong. He’s a powerful man who leads his people with ferocity and ambition. Yet, the Viking community is in a state of constant siege and, most importantly, decay. Their never ending battles with dragons wears them down. Hiccup’s father continually seeks for a solution, some form of attack that will cease the dragon attacks once and for all, yet finds himself frustratingly impotent in doing so. While the Viking community is not teetering on the edge of total collapse, the edges are beginning to fray. Tensions are mounting, and something must give in order for there to be renewal in the land.

Hiccup is not strong at all; he’s downright puny. Yet he is endowed with a special gift that sets him apart from the other Vikings, and that is critical thinking and technical knowledge. He stumbles upon a dragon (one of the most powerful, in fact) who is injured; Hiccup befriends the dragon and trains him in a very symbiotic way. The dragon (of Night Fury species), whom Hiccup dubs Toothless, has torn his tail which it uses for flying. Hiccup studies the dragon’s abortive flight attempts and builds a replacement wing which Hiccup controls. Only by working together in a state of union can the two achieve their goals.

During his training sessions, Toothless flies him into the very den of dragons itself, an elusive island Hiccup’s father has sought his entire life. There, he enters the maw of Hell and the underworld, a realm of suffering, death, and decay. He learns the dragons themselves are slaves to a Master Dragon, one Dragon to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. It forces the dragons to raid the Vikings so that they may plunder their lands to bring tribute back to the Great Beast. To disobey is certain death. Hiccup discovers in his venture to the Underworld the source of the Problem itself, a corruption that has thrown the entire world out of balance. Dragons, representative of the forces of nature, need not fight against and destroy Vikings, or humanity. Hiccup sees a vision of a world where man and nature unite in harmony; he intends to see it happen.

Still, the Viking community is very suspicious of dragons and Hiccup must keep this relationship a secret. Eventually, others are drawn into the circle of trust, and eventually he must marshall his allies and directly oppose his father, who has now begun to show signs of hubris (and even madness). After betraying his son’s trust and using him to find the dragons’ homeland, he hurtles towards oblivion with the rest of his followers. Hiccup understands this to be certain death; such an invasion will only end in bloodbath and the complete and inevitable annihilation of the Viking race. Hiccup’s father, the chief, has effectively lost his kingship, his right to rule, and Hiccup must take the crown by violence to save the kingdom now toppling into destruction.

In the midst of the war, he opposes his father and strips him of his authority to lead. He takes the reins of kingship and leads his people in battle. He is victorious; yet, the victory comes not without a price. Hiccup is caught in the dying throes of the corrupted Great Serpent, a now corpulent and bloated mockery of dragonship, and plummets to the earth. It is at this point that he dies, Hiccup son of Stoik the Vast. He is literally swallowed up by the dragon Toothless. Representative of nature’s relationship with man, you could say that the earth itself, Mother Gaia, swallows the lifeless body of Hiccup. However, when the crowd gathers about to mourn the loss of their hero, Hiccup emerges from the dragon’s mouth and is reborn, hero of the Vikings and new chief of the Viking tribe. Still, he has not emerged unscathed — he has lost a leg, symbolic of the atoning price the king must pay in order to renew the land and bring new prosperity to its people. Just as how Toothless (nature) lost its limbs, throwing herself (and the world as a whole) off balance, so Hiccup must also undergo the ritual of sacrificing the king in order to bring about renewing power.

And that he does. Hiccup has brought about rebirth to the land. Dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony, a symbiotic relationship built upon mutual trust and cooperation rather than competition and death. Hiccup has literally restored the paradisaical Garden of Eden, the perfect marriage of man back into his place within the vibrant web of life. Though his father still lives, Hiccup is the de facto new king of the Vikings, revered by his followers and subjects, with a new queen by his side.

What makes HTYD so Campbellian, however, is not the simple Hero Outcast -> Adventures -> Gaining/Realization of New Powers -> Plunge into the Underworld -> Battle -> Death -> Rebirth narrative. Almost every Disney movie has this narrative. Heck, even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (which is another great movie) has this basic narrative. What makes HTYOD Campbellian is its attention to kingship, decay, and renewal. Here, we are shown a society literally falling apart. The king is helpless, weak despite his physical strength, even slightly mad. The Viking civilization is in a death spiral because the very land itself (the dragons) is rebelling against them. Here sets the stage for a hero to emerge, one of kingly blood himself who will bring renewal to his people but through sacrifice in order to re-establish balance in a world that has gone off-kilter.

Even more Campbellian is Hiccup’s “death.” Many children’s movies have an implied “death(?)” scene where the fate of the hero is in question. Not only does it build climactic tension right before the denouement, but it is essential in order to establish that the hero is no longer the same person; he has been reborn into a new creature. Hiccup’s “death” is even more dramatic and symbolic. Toothless, the symbol of nature, literally swallows up Hiccup, just as the earth swallows the hero’s body as a grave. This grave, ironically, is what saves Hiccup and brings about the means for his resurrection as the hero. And when he emerges, though he has mastered nature and dragons and claimed the rightful throne from his ailing father to lead his people (and thus uniting them as one and overcoming dualistic thinking), he has sacrificed himself to bring about this restoration.

And this is why HTYD is so ultimately more satisfying of an ending, more rich of a conclusion, than a movie like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Flint emerges from his implied “death(?)” scene basically the same as before — he’s the same lovable, goofy inventor, except validated by his peers and (most importantly) by his father. But other than that, nothing internally has essentially changed. The ending is self-gratifying, almost to the point of a Mary Sue — the “moral” of the story is simple; all of us are geniuses waiting to bloom and be validated by those around us, and we are to project this narcissism onto Flint himself.

Hiccup’s death, in contrast, is entirely opposite. Hiccup emerges changed, not only physically, but internally as well. He has suffered and made the blood sacrifice necessary to bring restoration to his people. He emerges the master of two worlds — both the social world he emerged from and eventually tamed as chief, but the dragon/nature world as well, which he also has tamed. His is not a self-indulgent victory in which he narrowly averts crisis brought about by his own hubris (like Flint), but one where he stops the madness of the king from plunging his people into destruction and pays the atoning burden for his people.

In short, this is the difference between HTYD and other hero’s journey stories like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Another great comparison example (last one, I promise!) is Harry Potter and Twilight. Both are archetypical hero journeys (Yes, Twilight! Though, in reality, it’s more of like an anti-hero’s journey. But that’s for another day). But in one story, the hero suffers loss and undergoes a fundamental change within himself to find mastery over the world he lives in and overcome death. In the other story, the heroine is a narcissistic egomaniac who also finds mastery over the world and overcomes death, but only through sniveling passivity and dithering, vapid cowardice. In the former, the mastery over death is preceded by volunteering to become a sacrifice, and this sacrifice enables the hero to overcome the Problem or the Corruption in order to bring balance, peace, and renewal to his people. In the latter, the mastery over death is preceded by satiating selfish desires, abandonment of previous obligations, and this mastery over death enables the heroine to continue living this selfish lifestyle. Thankfully, HTYD falls into the former category, though unfortunately, many hero journey stories nowadays fall into the latter, a self-indulgent attempt to justify counterfeit heroism — that is, heroism without obligation and sacrifice, yet replete with all of the unearned accolades and laurels of victory.

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Determinism is the future

Recently on Facebook, some friends made comments on determinism, calling it a worthless theory and simply an excuse to avoid responsibility or keep the masses down by explaining away things like poverty. This caused me to rip my hair out and gnash my teeth, because I firmly believe that the sticky question of biological determinism is the future we are headed towards and a massive seismic paradigm shift that will occur especially within religious circles in the future.

Determinism is already here

When taking a cognitive psychology class, the very first day my professor explained that psychology, in order for it to work in any kind of rigorous, scientific way, must assume that the human brain is deterministic. “Imagine it this way,” she explained. “Suppose as a chemist you are trying to figure out how hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine to make water molecules, and one day, the molecules decide, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make dirt molecules instead just because I want to.’ Then the other day, they combine to make water, and then the next day after that, they decide instead they want to turn into ice molecules. You wouldn’t get very far.”

Thus it is with the science of psychology. We cannot get very far if we discover that certain parts of the brain simply just “decide” that they are going to act differently today. “I know that I’m usually in charge of basic emotions and memory retention,” your hypothalmus reports. “But today, you know, I really just feel like an amygdala. Maybe the amygdala can take my job and I’ll take hers for a change.” This simply doesn’t happen.

People believe in deterministic behavior to a certain point because, like anything else in life, if it lacks consistency, it lacks any relevance or usefulness to our lives. In an extreme example, we as a society do not like it when children see graphic depictions of violence or sex. Why is this? Aren’t children, as people, free enough to determine for themselves what is right and wrong? No, we respond. They’re children. Already we understand at an instinctual level that age (and physical brain development) has something to do with cognitive functioning and imprinting.

In less extreme examples, I know that when I’m hungry, I get cranky. I snap at my wife, I become irritable, and I drive more aggressively. Because of this, when I feel this mood coming on, I understand it is imperative that I should eat something in order to prevent this unpleasant mood. I understand at some basic level there is some determinism involved. I certainly could try to will it away, but I’ve discovered that eating some crackers work just as fine and in a quick manner. There is something biological happening here — my lack of blood sugar and my emotional mood — and it would be difficult to deny that exists.

Everyone is already a determinist; they just don’t know it

Everyone, to an extent, is a “soft” determinist. As parents we attempt to raise and discipline our children, because we understand that the environment they grow up in determines some characteristics. While most of us will not throw our hands up in the air and say, “It’s all genetics, whether we try or not!” and walk away, the vast majority of parents will try to influence a child’s current and future behavior, though we should not think this the case if we believe in free will.

And even while most Americans may not abdicate personal responsibility to genetics, we understand there are hard, biological limits to free will. We may become frustrated with Down Syndrome or autistic children from time to time, but we would never tell them today that they can become “normal” if they just “tried hard enough.” Hopefully, most of us are educated enough to understand that telling a depressed person to just “get over it” does not work, especially if hard biological components are involved. The advent of psychotropic drugs which help medicate conditions from depression to schizophrenia are a miracle of our modern scientific world — all based on the premise that human behavior and cognitive thinking is deterministic. They follow strict scientific laws, even if we cannot understand all of them right now.

The evidence continues to mount that much of our behavior can be deterministic. The infamous Mischel’s Marshmallow Study showed that child behavior at ages as early as two can indicate how successful that person will be in our society today (even President Uchtdorf of the LDS Church cited it in General Conference, somewhat ironically). I have friends who are suicidal, anorexic, or violent without their medication. We’ve found that we can influence and condition somatic responses (via Pavlov’s drooling dog experiments), that certain substances like cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD can drastically alter behavior, mood, cognitive thinking, sensory perception, and all other facets of our personalities. Someone who is drunk should never think they can just “will the drunkness away”; I would hope even the most ardent foe of determinism would take away his keys.

At some point in time, everyone has done something that predicates on a deterministic mindset, whether or not you did it yourself for deterministic reasons, or if you treated someone in a deterministic way. People would, I hope, think the idea of “willing away” a high while taking LSD is patently ridiculous. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that some people are more biologically predicated to alcoholism, or the idea that kids who are less patient with marshmallow waiting at the age of two are more likely to end up in trouble with the law? People would, I hope, think that children should not grow up in abusive homes because it can psychologically scar them. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that people growing up in a culture of poverty find it hard to break out of it, or the idea that gang behavior is stronger in certain cultures over others?

God is a determinist

While many religious people who believe in the concept of free will or agency, especially in context with the Christian concept of sin, will scream for my blood and head on a pike when I say this, this does not sway the fact that the Christian God is a determinist. He tells us all that we are sinful, flawed creatures — this is a fate that not a single one of us humans can escape.

Mormons (and I use them as an example because I am most comfortable with their theology) reject the Calvinist concept of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will go to heaven and hell. However, we also believe in an omnipotent God, who knows everything — including who will go to heaven and hell. So we have concocted the doctrine of foreordination — that God understands us children so much that he can predict behavior, but he does not force us to do right things. He gives us the choice to come to him or reject him, but because he knows us so well he puts us in situations that suitably test us and give us the appropriate chances to embrace him (or at the very least, embrace goodness, for those who never come to know him in this life).

To explain, my wife gave the example of her younger sister. Her younger sister loves sprinkle donuts. If given the choice between many kinds of donuts, she knows her sister will choose sprinkle donuts. My wife knows this, yet she is not forcing her sister to do so — her sister chooses sprinkle donuts out of her own “free will” — and my wife knows this future information because she understands her sister’s personality enough.

But while this may eliminate the idea that God forces us to do certain things, it merely shifts the burden of determinism from God to us as flawed people. My wife’s sister will choose the sprinkled donut because some facet of her personality forces her to do so. To like or not like a sprinkled donut seems arbitrary, and even silly, as an example of determinism, but it shows how pervasive it is in our lives. If my wife alerted her sister to this fact, she may choose to eat another donut out of rebellion (and if my wife knows her to be especially rebellious, she can predict this, too, because of the principles of basic human determinism). But her sister will have very little in her power to enjoy the alternative donut more than her favorite, sprinkled donuts. This lack of free will becomes even more apparent when presented with the choice of broccoli over sprinkle donuts; her sister would have to be a Zen master in order to truly feel that broccoli is as tasty, let alone tastier, than a sprinkle donut. She is a prisoner to her unique brain mapping.

Foreordination does not provide any form of free will as many of us believe in it; in fact, it only reinforces the fact that God himself understands that we are deterministic creatures that will respond in predictable, specific fashions to specific stimuli. A good Mormon like myself would argue that God knows what is good for me and what is bad for me; what will help me grow and what will break me. But all of these rely on the idea that I am a predictable, deterministic being. If this isn’t the definition of determinism, I don’t know what is.

Because of this, God can make sweeping edicts that hold true in every situation, one of the most important being this — all of us are sinful creatures in need of his mercy. None of us can break free of this edict. None of us (except for Jesus Christ, if you swing that way in religion) can do this; it is bar none an impossible task, undoable no matter how much will or effort you put into it. Something inside of you, something embedded deep within you, some physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual shard of imperfection will compel you to sin. God cannot be God and lie at the same time. Whether it is God that is forcing you to sin, yourself that is forcing you to sin, or the environment that is forcing you to sin, all of this is immaterial to the fact that something will cause you to sin, and that is predictable behavior because humans are deterministic.

The Religious Implications

This puts people who love (yes, even worship) the idea of free will as we currently understand it in a very difficult pickle. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit that something they’ve done had some form of deterministic cause. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit they treated someone in a certain way because they believed it would have some form of deterministic consequence. But we must also adhere to the principle of free will! We must all have some form of personal responsibility, or should we just forgive rapists because “they couldn’t help it, they were born that way?” Our society’s moral fabric will fray apart!

These are all very serious and very true problems. But hoping determinism goes away is not the right way to address these issues. Science cannot explain everything; even with all of the advances of science today, the combined efforts of psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and all the other -ologies cannot explain much of anything. We have only begun to scratch at the surface, slowly shifting away the dirt beneath our feet to find we are standing on an intricate and priceless mountain of gold. We can, and some would argue that we must, assert that the idea of personal responsibility must exist somewhere in the universe — but to deny a growing tidal wave of scientific evidence only serves to alienate religion especially from the newly discovered realities of our world.

Just as heliocentric models of the universe forced us to re-consider our position in the physical universe, just as how biological evolutionary models and modern geological techniques forced us to re-consider the creation of the physical universe, so the new deterministic behavior models of humans will force us to re-consider our relationship and influence from and to the physical universe. We may all possess some form of free will; personally, I believe this shard of free will is a birthright from our perfect spiritual Father. Still, we are imperfect through and through, and where the gaps of our free will exist, determinism fills it in.

As for my personal opinion? As I’ve grown more and more aware of the environmental, internal, biological, and social pressures that influence me in a myriad variety of ways that can only be described as the largest, most complex cocktail ever devised, I’ve taken the time to sit down and meditate, to pick apart the reasons why I do things. If personal responsibility exists, I must find it for myself; I cannot have anyone hand it to me. If I am to create any semblance of true freedom, I must first acknowledge all of the pressures and influences and forces that work in my life. As I’ve walked down this difficult personal path, I can see, for the first time in my life, why I act like this — my rebellion against my mother’s Confucian values; my Buddhist feelings and thoughts coming from my father’s “seminars” during weekly family nights; my love of Nibley’s anti-money ranting over my own complicated childhood experiences with money; my unique Mormon lens derived from the unique Mormon congregations I attended as a child and unique, Mormon experiences I had as a teenage missionary.

When I look into myself, I see American social values clashing with internalized Korean social values. I see how my parents’ desire for me to succeed in education drove me to intellectual elitism, while my father’s background growing up as a subsistence level chicken farmer in Paraguay drove me to decry American consumerism and materialism. I can see how the unique biological makeup of my brain that has revealed itself over the years shows me perennially optimistic and yet deadly anxious around personal interactions. I see challenges and confront them because I believe I have some kind of personal responsibility and free will, but I look at my biology and socialization to discover them. And when people fail in life in whatever sense, I find myself deeply sympathetic and my heart swells with mercy because, with just a few tweaks in my brain chemistry or genetic string of proteins, that drunk in the street or that socially incompetent and painfully awkward co-worker could have been me.

When I see these threads that weave a very unique tapestry inside of me, I’m amazed at the beauty of humanity. We are intricately complex, deeply beautiful, and infinitely flawed machines. I personally believe there is a clock maker out there, some master architect, watching and from time to time personally intervening in the lives of his clockwork creatures. True freedom, for me, does not come from burying my head in the sand, denying that there are impulses and traits in me that are difficult, if not impossible to control. True freedom comes from examining within, finding the “bugs” inside of me and either repairing them or learning to work around them, like a self-modifying computer program. Imprinted in me is the master architect’s hand, his own personal flourish. I, for one, as a determinist and a Christian, intend to find it and praise it.

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