Some Random Thoughts on Free Will

We Mormons are pretty naive about things like this, and I certainly include myself in this.  We throw around concepts like free agency willy-nilly without much understanding of what we are even talking about.  This post will be something of an example of this.  I know this will be terribly novice, please feel free to use small words to improve my thinking about this.  But I have been trying to figure out for myself what free will even is, or perhaps better – what is the phenomenon of choice?

A while ago Clark passed along some links to MIT course notes on free will here.  Some of my current understanding comes from this.  But here are some thoughts about what the phenomenon of choice means to me:

We have a limited ability to act in order to improve our situation.
We have motivation to act to improve our situation, even if it is based on partial information – or even random acts.
There is a lack of complete coercion forcing our choices.
We have some memory of past acts and their consequences.
We have a limited ability to deliberate prior to some acts.
We have the ability to choose what criteria to use for such deliberation.
Our choices are so complex that they may never be objectively the best choice among all possible alternatives.

So, the phenomenon of choice is the limited ability and motivation to select the criteria to deliberate among a partial set of possible options, and to act on the subjective results of such deliberation.

That may be terribly bad.  But dictionary definitions don’t seem much better – philosophically speaking.  But such definitions do not prove free will at all I think.   One could question that all of the above come from some prior cause.  Where do our abilities come from?  What are our deliberations based on?  I still feel there is something of a trump card that Mormonism has in the defense of real free will – and that is the eternal, uncreated intelligence of man.  This intelligence (whatever it may be) came before any claimed prior cause.  Whether it is the religious dogma of God’s creative acts, or the scientific claims of natural forces, nothing comes before the eternal intelligence.

That’s about all I got.

19 Responses to “Some Random Thoughts on Free Will”

  1. 1 aquinas March 2, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    The degree to which Mormonism can be said to defend a robust notion of free will largely depend on one’s conception of spirits and the nature of man. For example, McConkie believed that:

    Any notion or theory that life, or ego, or agency, existed for each individual prior to the time of the spirit birth is pure speculation, wholly unsupported by any correctly understood and properly interpreted scripture. Life began for man and for all created things at the time of their respective spirit creations. Before that there were only the spirit elements from which the Almighty would in due course create life. Mormon Doctrine. 2d eds. 1958, 442.

    According to this conception of man, agency does not exist eternally but comes into being at “spirit creation” or “spirit birth.” From there, it follows that our spiritual configuration is determined by God and God alone, and we really do not have any choice in the matter, and thus one might argue that God is completely responsible for everything that follows. Thus, this conception tends to “undo” any benefits of eternalism and we are back in the same exact dilemma as traditional Christian theology where God creates the spirit and body of man ex nihilo. Under this view, there really isn’t any significant difference between creating man out of nothing or creating man out of something where ultimately there is no prior cause, no agency, and no life, before the creation of man. This is one of the reasons why fleshing out a conception of spirits is important. One’s conception of spirit birth has direct ramifications on one’s conception of free will.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson March 2, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Excellent comment.

    I think McConkie’s quote is ironic. He says that any theory is speculation, then gives one. Personally I think this explanation is incomplete.

    I prefer the idea that whatever we were prior to spirit birth had something like consciousnes, intelligence, individual will. Of course this is speculation also.

  3. 3 Matt W. March 2, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    In the King Follet Speculation, Joseph Smith seemed pretty fond of the Speculation of Abraham 3:18.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson March 2, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Nice. When does the speculation stop? I think I will go with Abraham and Joseph on this one.

  5. 5 WVS March 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Very funny Matt. I got my laugh quotient for the day. I understand that BRM became a bit more agnostic about this later in life. But I cannot recall why I think this.

  6. 6 m&m March 3, 2010 at 1:58 am

    I tend to think that the “free” part of free will is inextricably tied to the atonement. We are “free” because of Christ, not because of our spiritual natures alone. We can learn by experience and learn to make better and better choices because of Christ.

    “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon”

    I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts well, but as I have pondered this topic, I’m humbled by the fact that that my stupidity and limited abilities are enough in my effort to make choices if I will have faith in the Savior. And amazingly, I feel my ability to make choices is increased through grace, not simply by some natural ability I have. I don’t see free will as being something that exists separate from God or Christ, because without the gift of the Atonement, every choice we would make would lead us to bondage because of our fallenness.

    The adversary tried to destroy agency by getting between us and God, and shielding us from the process of learning by experience, through consequences, repentance, and redemption. The “free” will in my mind is more about that space granted unto us to repent and learn through faith, repentance and so forth.

    And maybe this is unrelated to what you are getting at, but

  7. 7 m&m March 3, 2010 at 2:00 am

    and shielding us from the process of learning by experience,

    That makes it sound like a positive — he was trying to take away our chance to choose by removing the need for choice, the possibility of risk, etc.

    That last sentence was supposed to be deleted, but it may still be true that I am heading in a direction unrelated to your original thoughts….

  8. 8 Eric Nielson March 3, 2010 at 8:06 am


    Such a change would not surprise me.


    It seems to me that we had free will in the preexistence – thus the war in heaven. 1/3 of the hosts of heaven were cast out because of their free choices. This happened before the atonement. I also feel there must be some choice on our part to even accept and take advantage of the atonement.

    Your take seems to suggest that we do not have free will prior to accepting the atonement.

    Is the above fair?

  9. 10 Ron Hubscher March 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    We are free… But god know us to the core of our being.

    Think of your children. They are free to make their own choices. But, as parents, we often know the roads we will walk… because of experience, fore knowledge, and that we know them…

    Thus it is in heaven… We are free to choose as we will. But as God knows us, he also knows where our own free will will lead us… But, it is still our own right to choose.

  10. 11 Eric Nielson March 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Hey Ron. Thanks for stopping by.

    For purposes of this post, the question is where does our freedom come from, and what is it. Many would claim that if God created us out of nothing, or created us absolutely, then we are entirely the product of God – or a prior cause. It is difficult to make a strong claim to free will with such an absolute thing.

    Historically there is a battle between free will and the absolute foreknowledge of God. If God knows every detail of the future absolutely (particularly if one claims God to be omnitemporal), then this would be evidence that there is no real free will.

    Again, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  11. 12 m&m March 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Eric, actually, I believe very much in the fact that we had agency in the premortal world. Obviously I wasn’t clear.

  12. 13 Eric Nielson March 4, 2010 at 7:49 am


    I am still struggling to understand your view on this, and it is not necessarily your fault.

    Are you claiming that we somehow get all of our abilities/motives absolutely from Christ through the atonement? In a way this seems to be functionally equivalent to creatio-ex-nihilo, or creation out of nothing. If this is the case then that puts us back in the business of the problem of evil, and in a weaker position for defending free will.

    Is this fair?

  13. 14 m&m March 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Are you claiming that we somehow get all of our abilities/motives absolutely from Christ through the atonement?

    No, I’m pointing out that the “free” in free will really isn’t free if consequences from our sins and weakness would damn us from the get-go, which they would without the Savior’s atonement, which has been effectual since before the earth was formed (from my understanding).

    Part of agency includes the consequences tied to choices, which help us learn by experience to discern good from evil. My understanding is that the adversary tried to destroy agency by eliminating consequences (which really wouldn’t work anyway, but added to that he wanted the glory for ‘saving’ us). I find that contrast very striking to the Savior, who essentially said, “Let me be the One to cover them so they can have the freedom, the ability, the space granted to learn by experience and to be able to repent when they goof.”

    I don’t think we could really be free to make choices in the sense of not having any choices we make consign us to eternal bondage if it weren’t for the Savior. I, for one, would NOT feel free because I would be scared spitless to breathe, let alone move, if I didn’t know that there was a space of safety created for me to exercise my agency with mercy in there somewhere.

    So in that sense I see our free will tied inextricably to the Savior’s Atonement. But I don’t believe He created our free will…just that He made the exercise of it possible. I do believe we were created as acting beings, that that is part of what it means to be children of God. But that free will would not be a gift and would mean nothing in a vacuum without the Atonement.

    Does that help?

  14. 15 Eric Nielson March 10, 2010 at 9:41 pm


    In your fist paragraph you speak of sinful consequences damning us. There seems to be a chicken and egg thing going on here. Would it be just for us to be actively damned by God if we are not free? My view is that our free will is eternal, and the Plan of Salvation was something that was presented to us at a point in time. So I view the freedom of the will to come first. I have a hard time making sense of it the other way around.

    I applaud your understanding of Satans’s plan as removing consequences rather than forcing righteousness. That makes more sense to be but most Mormons would take the other side. Also what verse is it that has the Savior saying ‘goof’? Is the Shenanegans 4:2?

    I am having some trouble making heads or tails of paragraph 3. I think it goes back to the view of having eternal punishment as the fundamental thing, prior to fee will or the atonement. I would view free will as being more fundamental, and the plan of salvations with its rewards and the lack thereof coming along after. Again, probably chicken and egg stuff.

    Your forth paragraph is interesting. It seems you may be saying that there would be no such thing as ‘goodness’ without the atonement. But I feel that free will is eternal, prior to becoming a child of God. Thus I do not currently see it as a ‘gift’. I do go along with the atonement providing meaning, and purpose, and unimaginable opportunities associated with the proper use of our will. Without the atonement free will would not get us to much of any destination.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think of how these things fit together in ways I had not.

  15. 16 m&m March 16, 2010 at 2:55 am


    If you don’t want to go back and forth on this anymore, that’s fine. Here are some thoughts if you do.

    I think perhaps I see where we might be talking past each other. You see free will as separate, something that existed before “spirit birth,” (whatever that means) even, maybe?

    I guess I see both. I see the Atonement as also being from the beginning, even before the “moment in time” when the plan was presented. I guess I see all the principles that come into play in the plan of salvation as existing before that “moment.” That it isn’t just chicken and egg but more of a d. All of the above kind of thing. That’s my current thought, although I clearly haven’t thought about these things as much as you.

    I, too, believe “free will” existed before that “moment in time” but I still think that the atonement and other principles have a reach that is beyond (and before) that “moment.” That they are eternal, too…because I don’t see that free will can mean anything in a vacuum of the purpose of that free will, which can’t exist in my view w/o opposing forces. Otherwise, there is nothing on or about which to exert free will.

    So, does eternal punishment’s existence to you have a beginning point? Do you see a sort of order – that free will existed first, then _____ , then __________ ? (just trying to understand a little more)

    And sorry if the ‘goof’ scripture seemed irreverent.

    What is influencing my thoughts is some comments from others I have heard over time about the eternal nature of the atonement…that it isn’t just about this life, that it also impacted us in the premortal realms.

    But then again, that would have to presuppose that we know about the need for an atonement before “that moment” when the plan was presented.

    The response to that would be that maybe it was lots of moments, lots of family councils that occurred over a lot of “time” whereby when the “moment” came to “choose” we had already done a lot of our thinking and choosing already.

    Anyway, I dunno. But it’s fun to think and talk about. 🙂

  16. 17 Eric Nielson March 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm


    Talk about this all you like. It is why I blog about this stuff. I really think this is worthwhile. I see your explanations getting better, and my understanding of them increasing. Valuable stuff.

    I guess I view good and evil as eternal things. And that God himself must conform to such eternal law. I do not think God invented good and evil, but that he always chooses the good (in fact the best). So I view that God became God by obeying eternal law, and we must try and do the same.

    I think I view eternal punishement as different than most people. I view it more as a lack of reward I guess.

    So for me eternal law (good and evil) and free will are eternal. And that for us, the Plan of Salvation had a starting point and has a sequence. May be wrong headed, but is how I currently view things.

  17. 18 m&m March 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm


    I think I agree with most of what you are saying. Thanks for trying to understand me, too.

    Re: the the plan of salvation on a more time-bound scale — I can’t help but wonder if it’s not just more of the same, that given the eternal laws and free will that God was bound to have such a plan — that the plan is part of that eternal set of laws, or at least the natural outgrowth of them.

  18. 19 Eric Nielson March 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    You may well be right. That is part of why I say ‘for us’.

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