Counter-Determinism: What If?

August 1, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 1:29 pm   Category: Life

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.

-2 Nephi 2:11

When I was young, there was this comic book “What If?” which answered all sorts of brilliant questions, such as “What if Mary Jane were Spider-man and not Peter Parker?” Or “What if Captain America were the Incredible Hulk?” In order to get at and understand the question of LFW versus CFW. I would like to ask a “What if” question myself.

What if there were an opposition in all things?

What if we could get to a point in existence where every deterministic force acting upon us was answered by an equal and opposite deterministic force? What if the freedom in 2 Nephi 2:26 were a freedom from these deterministic forces, created by the counter deterministic force of the atonement? Remember, you can’t say “That’s not the way it works” or “That’s impossible.” This is a “what if” and as the “what-iffer” that part is non-negotiable.

Now that the scenario is set up, let us see what that leaves us with.

Option 1 would say that if there were no determining force acting upon us, we would be unable to act, frozen in stasis until the next deterministic force came upon us.

Option 2 says we would act completely at random, our choice nothing more than a chance in a billion completely independent of ourselves.

Neither of these seem satisfactory to me. I would say there is another way.

This is Option 3

I am taught in my religion, that there is something about me that is eternal. As President Packer recently said in a PBS interview “our spirits existed forever”. Thus there is a determining force that is not independent of me. This determining factor is me, the real true core of who I am.

So here is my question for you. Is this CFW or LFW? Is it either? Is Option #1 or #2 LFW or CFW?

What think ye?


  1. Matt,

    If the behavior of “me” in option 3 is fully explained by prior causes acting on and from within that “me” then option 3 is a compatibilist theory (much like the one suggested by JNS and Adam). If the behavior of “me” in option 3 is not fully a function of prior causes, then it is an incompatibilist theory (much like “agent causation” preached by some LFWers).

    As it is, you haven’t said enough about option 3 to be able to say which kind of theory it is. Pretty much anything (including an eternal self) can be worked into either paradigm.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 1, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

  2. I agree with Jacob J.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood — August 1, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  3. If that is the case, and either theory will do and is satisfactorily compatible with the requirements of #3, then I say the difference between CFW and LFW is ultimately irrelevent.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 1, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  4. Not so Matt.

    The version of CFW that Adam and JNS suggested assumes (or at least suspects) that the “real true core” of who you are has a “nugget of character” that is fixed and unchangeable. If that were the case then your fate and future would be fixed and unchangeable right now. So in that CFW model if you are fated to never be a celestial person based on your unchangeable “real true core” of character then there is nothing you can do to change that.

    If the real true core of you is simply an agent with LFW who can choose to change your character then you are free to choose what/who you will be and to choose your own fate. The future and your fate would not be fixed in that model.

    Certainly that distinction is anything but “ultimately irrelevant.”

    Comment by Geoff J — August 1, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  5. So in that CFW model if you are fated to never be a celestial person based on that unchangeable “real true core” of character then there is nothing you can do to change that.

    Of course, to be true to the compatibilist position, “then there is nothing you can do to change that” should be rephrased as “then there is nothing you will do to change that.”

    It’s not that people can’t change, it’s that whether they will or will not change is already baked into the current state of the universe and was baked in before they were born. Before their spirit entered their body, their life history was written into the direction and velocity of all the particles of the universe. We have to wait for time to roll on before we can see what happens (because we are not Laplace’s demon), but whatever happens is already a done deal.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 1, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

  6. BTW Matt — I commend you for being a Marvel man rather than a DC dude. But how exactly could Mary Jane be Spider Man?

    Comment by Geoff J — August 1, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

  7. Geoff J #4 I admit to being completely out of my depth on this, but what if this unchangeable core doesn’t determine what kingdom you are in, but suggests that you always have had and always will have agency? Or you always have been or always will be “male”? or always have been and always will be on the “human” track and not the “Cat” track.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 1, 2007 @ 7:31 pm

  8. Matt: but what if this unchangeable core doesn’t determine what kingdom you are in

    That is precisely the massive IF we have been debating over all this time Matt! If the core doesn’t include an unchangeable character nugget then it doesn’t determine kingdom and LFW is true. If the core includes some unchangeable character then it does determine the kingdom and CFW is true.

    The suggestion that there is some unchangeable character nugget is the part we LFWers reject.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 1, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

  9. What of the “oneness” we preach of? Surely, Christ’s invitation to share in his persona would radically alter the playing field. And for those who are familiar with the more esoteric rituals–surely, the multiple invitations to ascend into and through various personas ought to radically alter the playing field that much more–exponentially!

    Comment by Jack — August 1, 2007 @ 9:07 pm

  10. Geoff J: I am not sure I understand. If the character trait determines whether you can pee stand up comfortably, but not whether you are bound for the telestial kingdom, then it’s liberterian free will? I admit, my current source of knowledge is juvenile. But this is very confusing. Also, for example, if I have the character trait of being able to make choices for my self, does this not affect my chances of which kingdom I am bound for as compared to say an object which can not make choices for itself, like say a tree or a rock or a worm?

    And further, if a woman can be the mail man or the fire man, then she can be the spider-man. Too bad the books are all like $3 or more now, or else I might still pick them up. Though I have to admit that in my later years I decided that the Flash was the greatest superhero ever.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 5:57 am

  11. I guess so far to me, the difference between CFW and LFW seems like the difference between excedrin migraine and extra-strength excedrin. Labelling.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 6:01 am

  12. Matt W., weren’t CTR rings inspired by the Flash’s frequent partner, Green Lantern (or is it the other way around, Green Lantern rings were inspired by CTR rings?)?

    Comment by Robert C. — August 2, 2007 @ 6:26 am

  13. Robert, I think the Green Lantern is only inspired by the CTR Ring when it is worn by Steve Martin. That said, Flash could easily kill Green Lantern. You ee, Green Lantern’s power comes from his ability to imagine objects he can create with his ring, and is thus limited to the speed of thought, whereas the Flash has shown that he can move so fast as to be able to make time stop, and thus can clearly move faster than the speed of thought. Admittedly, If Green Lantern got the jump on the Flash and contained him in a sphere and then contracted the sphere, he could easily crush and kill the Flash, but the Flash may possibly be able to escape, as in the past the Flash at one point was able to vibrate his body at such a fast rate that he could pass through solid objects. I am not sure if he could “vibrate” through the energy which Green Lantern’s projections are created out of, but if you move into my Ward, I’d be happy to discuss this on any given Sunday.

    While I am certain on these matters, I am still not sure if LFW and CFW are different enough to be relevent.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 6:53 am

  14. Matt: I am not sure I understand.

    Yep, you don’t understand yet.

    If the character trait determines whether you can pee stand up comfortably

    That’s not a character trait. That’s a physical trait. Character traits that Adam and JNS alluded to were more along the lines of a natural spiritual proclivity to mercy vs. cruelty, selflessness vs. selfishness, forgiveness vs. unforgiveness, etc. So even if there are unchangeable physical traits (like our sex) they wouldn’t predestine us to various kingdoms of glory. But if there were predestined character traits as Adam and JNS speculate then an unforgiving person at the core will always be unforgiving at the core and can never repent and change that character flaw because it is an essential part of who they are and always have been in that CFW model. Therefore that person could never be exalted — exaltation would be against her very nature from all eternity. See the problem yet? In LFW we have no unchangeable character traits and there is no character flaw we cannot repent of by choice. Therefore in a LFW model exaltation is a possibility for all people from all eternity.

    if a woman can be the mail man or the fire man

    Hehe. In the absence of a sex change operation a woman can’t become a fire man or mail man Matt. She would be called a firefighter or a mail carrier.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 9:02 am

  15. Storm is an X-man… Of course whether or not Peter Parker or MaryJane were Spider-man, The Flash could kill either one, very easily.

    Let’s focus on ability to choose. Is this a physical trait or a character trait? If we lose our ability to choose, we can not enter the celestial kingdom (although I think we can not really lose our ability to choose, as it is an eternal characteristic, but on the other hand it is also a gift from God, so what do I know) Anyway, we could say that things which do not have an ability to choose are predestined to a particular kingdom and things which do have an ability to choose are predestined to one of a finite number of eventual outcome types, although these types may include an infinite variety. Since having the ability to choose is in fact the foundation of having any other character traits, I’d say it has the ability to determine our character traits, changeable as they may be. Unless we go with Supernatural LFW, and just hold that humans are a seperate category from everything else, or that animals are a seperate category, or something. But where do we draw the line? People have LFW, but Celery Doesn’t, and Cats might have LFW, but it’s fairly clear than rocks don’t. We’re not at all sure about worms, but protozoa on the other hand…

    I really need to stop now… I think something has exploded in my brain…

    Now you know why I’ve been not commenting on the other posts.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 9:34 am

  16. Maybe I should rename this post:

    “More of the bloody same, but this time we desperately ought to have gotten training wheels.”

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 9:48 am

  17. Let’s focus on ability to choose. Is this a physical trait or a character trait?

    It’s certainly not a character trait. I argue that libertarian free will is an essential characteristic of all sentient beings. Therefore, along with you I don’t think we can lose our ability to choose in many important senses of the word. See this recent post.

    or that animals are a seperate category

    Yep, that is the standard approach to this. We treat humans as being in a separate category from all other animals when it comes to freedom to choose, moral responsibility, etc.

    (Now whether lower forms of life have lower forms of libertarian free will or if they are entirely causally determined is an interesting question. But since I have very little data on which to speculate on that I haven’t even tried to this point. Still, my position that sentience and libertarian free will are pretty well synonymous leaves open some interesting avenues to discuss just what degree of sentience a dolphin or dog or even prehistoric homo sapien might have …)

    But back to the topic at hand: JNS and Adam have speculated that we all are entirely causally determined beings with no choices in the libertarian sense. They say that is ok though because we are caused to act in accordance with our unchangeable nature — even if that means we have always been predestined to whatever kingdom. My argument is that such a CFW position is totally incompatible with the restored gospel and moral responsibility and the concept of repentance.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 9:50 am

  18. Geoff, you definitely present a very convincing argument from the LFW side of things. I was hoping I would get a genuine report from the CFW side, but no takers have stepped up. The weekest link in our discussion thus far to me is the underlying rule that there is a difference between a character trait and a characteristic.

    In your mind, since all character traits are changeable, what changes them?

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  19. In your mind, since all character traits are changeable, what changes them?

    We do. We are the agents. We are beginningless spirits with power to choose who we will be. There is nothing more to it than that. We have always had power to choose and we always will in my opinion.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 10:36 am

  20. But why do we choose to change? How do we even know we have a choice to change? Are we not taught these things from external choices, and then we are left to our personal tastes, which can also change, to determine what choice we take. Do we choose our personal tastes? If so, based on what criteria?

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 10:50 am

  21. Matt,

    Why ask me? Look to your own experience for the answers about how you know you can choose to change or why you would want to. You are a independent sentient being after all. Do you choose your tastes? What criteria do you use?

    Also keep in mind that our bodies (genes) and our environment influence us here on earth so separating the influence of “the flesh” from who we are without these current bodies is a sticky problem.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 11:08 am

  22. From my own experience, I would say I see things external to me that I like, based on what I see, and I change to allow myself a better chance of getting those things that I like. Of course, the utility of my state of being may suffer from eventual diminishing returns, so I would abandon those things which did not have sustainable utility, but of course it is debateable if there is anything which does not suffer from diminishing returns, but supposing there was something, say deitiy, which had undiminishing returns.

    I am not sure if I choose my tastes or not. I know that some of my tastes are caused by my nature, some by nurture, and my choices. I wonder if any of my tastes are eternal at all. (I gues if one were, that would make CFW true, no?) Of course nature and nurture are deterministic forces acting upon me. My choices causing my tastes is a complicated issue, as my choices are caused my my tastes. This means we have a loop cycle in this life that goes back to the time we were babies and unable to make choices, but were being given all sorts of external determining data. This isn’t CFW though, this is determinism.

    Let me ake sure I understand the vernacular.

    LFW means:
    Determinism is false
    Free Will is True.

    Determinism means:
    Determinism is True
    Free Will is False

    CFW means:
    Determinism is true
    Free will is true


    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 11:39 am

  23. Matt,

    It appears to me that you are not appying yourself on this issue. Are you genuinely trying to dig into the issue or are you pretty sure it is a non-issue and you’re just deliberately wasting our time?

    Comment by Jacob J — August 2, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  24. btw, “deliberately wasting our time” will read less harshly if you realize it is a quote from a Monty Python skit.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 2, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  25. Jacob, perhaps I am interested in a “this is a non-issue” sort of way up to about comment #21, but at comment #22, I am sincerely interested. Please do not shoot me.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 12:27 pm

  26. Yes Matt, your list is basically right. Compatibilists are called compatibilists because they think free will is compatible with determinism. Libertarians are incompatibilists and think the kind of free will the compatibilists describe is best referred to as “hypothetical free will” since compatibilists believe that while we are on a predestined/fated life track that we can/will never get off, there is at least the hypothetical option we could choose otherwise and jump tracks (even though we never actually will).

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  27. I guess from my reasoning in #22, about the origins of our tastes, I would say we are determined beings evolving toward LFW beings. Is that possible?

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

  28. Nope.

    See here and here and here for some ideas that are possible (even likely in my opinion) along those lines though.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 2, 2007 @ 4:43 pm


    Happy 5th anniversary Matt & Larke. Thanks for all the both of you do.

    Comment by Mondo Cool — August 2, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  30. Happy anniversary Matt.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 2, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

  31. On a thread where Green Lantern and Spider-man, the Flash and Libertarian Free Will have already been discussed, I am not sure this is really a threadjack. Thanks for the regards.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 3, 2007 @ 5:38 am

  32. This what if sounds a lot like a paradox involving a mule equally placed between two mangers full of grain/hay.
    I think the problem with this argument (in general) is that the LFW crowd sees the determinic element as external not internal – hence you say “can’t” when the other side says “won’t”. (For example in #4 substitute will for can)
    But the distinction thus created can be used equally well against LFW arguments. One would merely frame the non-casual element as an external force thus taking away free will as the “nub of character” has been recast as an external force limiting our options. (Something inflicted upon us rather than who we are.)

    That aside here is another what if?

    What if God had a time machine and so could see what choices people did indeed make before they were born. For LFW proponenents, would this destroy the mercy and justice of God the way you argue that self-determination does? You can assume that their choices are unpredictable-from-casual-factors as per LFW.

    Comment by madera verde — August 6, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  33. Madera Verde,

    Yep. They call that concept “simple foreknowledge”. Such simple foreknowledge is logically incompatible with an open and unwritten future. If our futures are already written and closed to our writing/editing then we are not really free in the sense the gospel requires.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 6, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  34. In my scenario we don’t know our futures but God does.

    Comment by madera verde — August 6, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  35. We don’t have to know our fixed future for the logical incompatibility I mentioned to exist. If the future exists already to be known then we are not currently writing/editing our story, we are only playing it out as already written and thus we are not currently really free in the sense the gospel requires.

    For instance, if God sees you burning in hell in the future there would be nothing you could do to change that reality. In addition, there would be nothing God could do to change that reality. A fixed future assumes that not only are we powerless to escape our predestined fate, but that God is equally impotent to change it (since he knows what will happen, not what might happen in such a scheme).

    Comment by Geoff J — August 6, 2007 @ 3:09 pm

  36. You know I can’t help thinking that your argument amounts to saying that God is not guilty because he doesn’t know which chamber the bullet is in when he pulls the trigger.
    At judgement we will be powerless to escape our pre-determined (by ourselves) fate because the same spirit which doth posess our bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess our body in that eternal world.

    Anyways, I have made the points that I would like to make, and I remain convinced of my position and you of yours so I am signing off now. It has been an interesting conversation and I have enjoyed thinking about it. Thanks for creating this posting in its various incarnations.

    Comment by madera verde — August 7, 2007 @ 6:24 am

  37. I was wrong. I want to add on my final point. Basically I see free will as an eternal thing whereas I think you see it as something that is attached to the moment only. Thus in the past their is no free will because we already know what choices people in fact did make. In the future our wills do not extend because we cannot predict nor make certian that we make any choices.

    I see it more along the lines that our whole lives from eternity to eternity in whole is how we make our choice between eternal life or death. I don’t see that as a function neccesarily of the fleeting moment.
    Anyways, thanks for your patience. God Speed.

    Comment by madera verde — August 7, 2007 @ 6:49 am

  38. Madera Verde: our pre-determined (by ourselves) fate

    If our fate is predetermined by ourselves in a compatibilist model the question is when do we create it? If the future already exists then we are not creating it now. So when was it created by us? Before the earth? But if it did not exist then, when did God get his foreknowledge? The whole notion crumbles under scrutiny.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 7, 2007 @ 8:42 am