Most of us assume that we have some say over what we do, but psychology (as a discipline) is baked through and through with the idea that we do not. Social scientists usually assume that human behavior is part of a complicated causal chain. This assumption is often subtle and unspoken, but it influences the questions psychologists ask, and the answers they find acceptable. We see this in the most basic question of psychology: “What causes humans to act as they do? What variables account for human behavior?”

This assumption — necessary determinism — assumes that given prior conditions, subsequent events must be as they are and cannot be otherwise. We can think of this as a kind of billiard ball causality: once you know the trajectory, mass, and velocity of all the balls on the table, you can predict with accuracy how events will unfold. But it’s more than mere prediction: those events cannot be otherwise, given the initial conditions as stated. In a similar way, most psychological theory assumes that human beings are immensely complicated billiard balls.

Another metaphor might be a marionette — a puppet controlled by strings that are moved by a puppeteer. The marionette’s behavior is entirely determined by the string-pulling of the puppeteer. In the determinist view, human action is the same — except that instead of five or six strings, there are millions: genes, upbringing, social environment, neurochemical imbalances, brain injuries, hormones, environmental conditioning, socioeconomic status, social context, gender, race, early childhood trauma, and other impersonal natural forces.

However, Latter-day Saints believe in moral agency, which means that we have the capacity to recognize good and evil, the ability to choose between them, and enjoy some degree of personal accountability for our choices. We believe that God has created, as Father Lehi taught, “both things to act and things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). Human behavior is fundamentally different than the behavior of a rock or a planet.

Moral agency requires the existence of meaningful possibility in human action. There is simply no other way can we make adequate sense of moral accountability without possibility. This means that we simply cannot reduce human behavior to strictly causal language without fundamentally misunderstanding who we are. We cannot reduce human action to the language of variables without getting human beings fundamentally wrong. Our belief in moral agency is fundamentally incompatible with necessary determinism, and — therefore — psychological theories that assume determinism.

This means that Latter-day Saint psychologists must learn to identify necessary determinism, in all of its varieties and subtleties, so that they can articulate thoughtful alternatives. We will argue in other articles that it is possible to rigorously study human behavior without assuming determinism. We can make a coherent, meaningful account of human activity without assuming that human beings are meat machines responding in programmed ways to their upbringing or social context. We can ask different kinds of questions, and we can anticipate different kinds answers.

In fact, since a war was fought in the heavens to defend moral agency, we have a religious duty to defend the very idea of agency while here on earth. This will not only make us better disciples, it will make us better scientists, because we will be telling a more truthful account of human nature.

The Hidden Worldview: Necessary determinism

Events unfold as determined by preceding causes and cannot unfold in any other way.

Determinism is the belief that any given event happens as it does because it was caused by previous events or conditions; and, given those previous conditions, the event in question could not have happened in any other way than it did. A more specific term is necessary determinism (also sometimes called “hard determinism” or “scientific determinism”). Some might refer to this as “billiard-ball causality,” since we can imagine all the complex events in the world being reduced to an intricate system of causes and effects, like billiard balls bouncing around on a pool table. A classic example of this sort of thinking can be seen in the famous pronouncement of the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, who stated that:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.[1]

This view of the world has worked well in the physical sciences (at least when it comes to events that can be described using Newtonian physics). But does it work with human behavior? Psychological theory and research often assumes it does. Because of the success of the natural sciences, many psychologists have simply assumed that the same philosophical worldview (i.e. Newtonianism) can help them explain the behavior of people. The historian of psychology Thomas Leahey has suggested that psychology’s desire to piggyback on the reputation and credibility of the natural sciences by adopting necessary determinism as a worldview is a sort of “physics envy.” For example, experimental psychologists Solso and Maclin declare:

All human thoughts and actions are caused. Finding the cause or causes of our thoughts and actions is frequently a very difficult problem for experimental psychologists, but it is also exhilarating, much as it must have been exciting for Galileo to contemplate the forces of gravity that caused balls of unequal weight to fall to the earth at the same rate. Central to these inquiries is the assumption that behind each thought or action a cause exists. That assumption is basic to the scientific investigation of the human condition.[2]

And, more recently, psychologist James W. Kalat, in his best-selling textbook Introduction to Psychology, writes:

The scientific approach to anything, including psychology, assumes we live in a universe of cause and effect. If things “just happen” for no reason at all, then we have no hope of discvoering scientific principles. That is, scientists assume determinism, the idea that everything that happens has a cause, or determinant, that someone could observe or measure. . . . The test of determinism is ultimately empirical: If everything you do has a cause, your behavior should be predictable.[3]

This sort of thinking is not, however, a new development in psychology. Some of the most influential and famous psychological theories in the history of the discipline have been very explicit about their commitment to deterministic explanation. For example, B. F. Skinner, one of the most famous behaviorists of the 20th century, stated: “The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application scientific method to the study of human behavior.”[4] Sigmund Freud, another very influential psychological theorist, wrote that belief in undetermined mental events or in free will “is quite unscientific and must yield to the demand of a determinism whose rule extends over mental life.”[5]

Other psychologists who may deny the assumption of determinism, nonetheless typically ask questions and use research methods that assume it anyways. This is because necessary determinism in psychology is often masked by the vocabulary of variables: “What variables can account for X in human behavior?” These sorts of questions assume that human behavior can be explained by — that is, they are caused by — antecedent variables, and that as we understand these variables we will be able to predict human behavior with greater and greater precision and accuracy. Recall the definition in Kalat’s textbook we quoted above. It speaks of not only causes and effects, but of using measurements (of variables) to make predictions. It is on the basis of those measurements and predictions that psychologists presume to identify the causes of human behavior, and, thereby, prove that determinism is true.

To illustrate further what determinism is and what it entails, think of a marionette — a puppet controlled by strings that are moved by a puppeteer. The marionette’s behavior is entirely determined by the string-pulling of the puppeteer. There is no agency in the marionette’s behavior because there is no possibility that it could do or be otherwise than the puppeteer dictates. In the determinist view in psychology, human action is taken to be essentially like that of a marionette — except that instead of five or six strings, there are millions of strings all tangled together; and instead of those strings leading back to the hand of a puppeteer, they lead back to “variables” such as genes, upbringing, social environment, neurochemical imbalances, brain injuries, hormones, environmental conditioning, socioeconomic status, social context,gender, race, early childhood trauma, and other impersonal natural forces.

In this way, even psychologists who explicitly reject necessary determinism still operate as if human behavior could be reduced to causes and effect — if for no other reason than their research questions, methods, and interpretations of data are generally formulated in the language of variables and causality. As the famous experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote: “Indeed, the creative claim of social psychology lies in its capacity to reconstruct varied types of social experience in an experimental format, to clarify and make visible the operation of obscure social forces so that they may be explored in terms of the language of cause and effect.”[6]

The Alternative: Agency & Possibility

Human beings are moral agents, which means that our behavior is subject to possibility.

Latter-day Saints believe in moral agency, which means that we have the capacity to recognize good and evil, the ability to choose between them, and enjoy some degree of personal accountability for our choices. But an essential prerequisite of moral agency is the existence of meaningful possibility in human action. As Latter-day Saints, we believe that people are fundamentally, qualitatively different than the objects around us. We believe that God has created, as Father Lehi taught, “both things to act and things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). We understand this doctrine to mean that human behavior isn’t governed by immutable scientific laws in the same way that the behavior of a rock or a planet might be.

However, because of the assumption of necessary determinism, according to LDS psychologist Richard N. Williams, “the teachings, traditions, theories, and philosophies of contemporary social science have almost no place for agency. … There are some ‘marginal’ perspectives that respect human agency; however, the overwhelming majority of positions either ignore it, dismiss it, or define it out of existence.”[7] Further, if human behavior is solely the product of variables — and can be sufficiently explained solely in terms of those variables — then there is no real possibility in human behavior (i.e., no possibility for behavior to be otherwise than it must be). Williams explains why this is an important issue:

[U]nless our pasts and our futures are in some fundamental sense open-ended and not merely given, it is impossible to attribute real meaning to our actions or maintain a sense of meaning in our lives and relationships. Without genuine possibility in life, all acts are simply necessitated and, without the possibility of being otherwise, are without meaning.[8]

This is a bold claim. Without possibility in human action, nothing we do really means anything at all. Just as agency requires possibility, so does morality and accountability. When a boulder is tumbling down the mountainside, and narrowly misses a hiker, would we thank the boulder for being considerate enough not to hit the unsuspecting hiker? Would we blame the boulder if it did not miss? Without the possibility of doing or being otherwise, we cannot make sense of personal accountability.

For example, let’s imagine for a moment that someone robs a bank. We later find out a mind-control device had been placed in the robber’s head, and that a third party was actually controlling his every move and thought. Would we even consider imprisoning the “robber” for his actions, or hold him in any way morally responsible? This is because we understand that genuine moral accountability requires the possibility of doing or being otherwise.

This is why we are convinced that the question of agency is a watershed issue. A watershed is a point in a topography of a landscape beyond which all water flows towards the same destination. Similarly, every psychological theory that does not allow for possibility in human action ultimately ends in nihilism (“meaning death,” or the idea that life has no real meaning or purpose). Williams explains: “We either are or are not moral agents. The reason human agency is so crucial to our self-understanding and our achieving our purposes is that agency is the core of all that is most human about us. It defines our eternal character.”[9]

The issue of agency, then, is one patch of intellectual ground that Latter-day Saints simply cannot surrender. After all, a war was waged in heaven to preserve human agency. We read in the scriptures, for example, that Lucifer rebelled against God and sought to take away the agency of God’s children. In the book of Moses, the Lord tells us:

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him … I caused that he should be cast down; And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice. (Moses 4:3-4)

The father of lies was cast out of heaven for trying to deprive mankind of their agency. We believe that if the matter of agency was that important to God, then we as Latter-day Saints psychologists should at least take it seriously when pursuing the work of a discipline meant to help the children of God. Williams continues:

Latter-day Saints should be among the leaders in the world in the investigation and defense of human agency. Nothing will frustrate Heavenly Father’s plan more quickly and easily than for people to cease to see themselves as agents, or — having started on that path — to genuinely cease to be such. On earth, as in the premortal world, there can be no compromise on the question on human agency.[10]

This means that agency needs to play a role in the kinds of questions we ask, the language we use to ask them, the methods we choose to investigate them, and the kinds of conclusions we draw from our data. How we take up the issue of agency means the difference between pursuing a discipline that strips our lives of meaning and purpose or pursuing a discipline that can respect, nurture, and genuinely contribute to the meaningfulness of our lives. “If contemporary social science theory,” Williams states, “does not honor [agency], embrace it, and defend it, then such theory must be rejected, and something true must be put in its place.”[11]

It is no surprise, then, that even when defended by Latter-day Saints, agency is so widely misunderstood. Many argue that agency is the same thing as political or social freedom. Others assume that agency means that we are unpredictable, or that our actions are partly due to chance — this is an understandable misconception, that we address in another article. Others assume that agency is the same thing as moral autonomy. Yet others assume that agency is a form of rational deliberation, and that instinctive acts are not agentic. All of these are deep misunderstandings of agency that we address in turn elsewhere in this series.

References   [ + ]

1. Laplace, Pierre Simon, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, translated into English from the original French 6th ed. by Truscott, F.W. and Emory, F.L., Dover Publications (New York, 1951) p.4
2. MacLin, M. Kimberly, and Robert L. Solso. Experimental psychology: a case approach. Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2002.
3. Kalat, James W. Introduction to psychology. Cengage Learning, 2017, italics in original.
4. Skinner, B.F. Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster, 1953.
5. qtd. In Bricklin, Jonathan. The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time: William James’s Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment. SUNY Press, 2015.
6. Milgram, S. (1992). The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments (2nd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
7. Richard N. Williams, “Restoration and “Turning of Things Upside Down”: What Is Required of an LDS Perspective.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy 23(1).
8. Richard N. Williams, “Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology.” In Aaron, P., and Lane Fischer, Turning Freud Upside Down: Gospel Perspectives on Psychotherapy’s Fundamental Problems. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah.
9. Richard N. Williams, “Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology.” In Aaron, P., and Lane Fischer, Turning Freud Upside Down: Gospel Perspectives on Psychotherapy’s Fundamental Problems. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah.
10. Richard N. Williams, “Restoration and “Turning of Things Upside Down”: What Is Required of an LDS Perspective.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy 23(1).
11. Richard N. Williams, “Restoration and “Turning of Things Upside Down”: What Is Required of an LDS Perspective.” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy 23(1).