Monday, November 12, 2007

More than one way to Skinner a cat

I attended a quasi-debate today between two psychology professors about agency. One was a behavioralist and a quasi-determinist a la B.F. Skinner, and the other didn't have too many opinions, so there wasn't much contest. They were discussing agency, and it got me to thinking.
I can't understand how anyone could subscribe to the theory of determinism. It seems so depressing--the belief that we can only be acted upon by our environment, that we completely lack agency--so hopeless, and so outside human experience. We all experience making choices--to say that this is an illusion, and that instead our circumstances determine out actions, denies responsibility, morality, and any meaning life might otherwise have had.
Agency is such a glorious gift. The ability to select between forces which entice us in so many directions, and the need to be responsible for the choices we make is beautiful. It gives meaning to life. It separates us from the animals. It gives us a consciousness, a soul, a way to make meaning of our lives, and the ability to change, to grow even from the most crushingly hopeless circumstances.

I am distressed at how easily we compromise our agency. Latter-day Saints believe that, as spirit children of our Heavenly Father, before we came to this earth, we fought a war in heaven for our freedom to choose, which Lucifer wished to take away from us. That war goes on today--Lucifer, now called the devil, still seeks to enslave us, to bind us, to get us to cede our agency to him.
It worries me when I see hypnotist shows, where for cheap entertainment we give over control of our actions to someone whose express intent is to make a buck on us by getting us to do stupid things and embarrass ourselves in front of our friends.
And hypnotism is only the most innocuous form of agency deprivation. Satan is filling the world with addictive substances and activities that enslave us. Addiction destroys our ability to feel the quiet promptings of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit cannot dwell in unholy temples. Drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling, or anything else that binds us in any manner will eventually destroy us. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, anything that comes between us and God will come between us and everyone we love.
So how do we recognize a seemingly innocuous activity as a deceptive flaxen cord that will become a chain? Susanna Wesley, in a letter to her son John, wrote one of the most profound and succinct statements I've ever read on the matter. She said:

"Would you judge the lawfulness or unlawfulness of pleasure? Take this rule--whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes of your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself."

It's an excellent rule, one that I need to employ frequently. Does this activity bring me closer to God, or take me away from Him? Does it increase the authority of my body, or my mind? How do I feel about myself and others during and after my participation? Am I using this as a crutch to cover some other hurt, inadequacy, guilt, pain, or wrongdoing? Does this uplift me? Does it build up the kingdom of God? Do I find my agency compromised? Is it easier for me to be enticed by good influences, or by evil ones?

I do not mean to be negative. But I have watched lives destroyed and hearts broken by improper use and loss of agency, and I feel very strongly the need to speak clearly about it. Please be mindful of this beautiful gift, given to you by a loving Father in Heaven. Use it wisely. Do not give it away. Do not sell it cheaply. Do not abandon it. Whatever choices you may have made, do not give up hope. If you are enslaved, plead with the Lord to deliver you from bondage. I promise you that He will. He has already carried your burden. He will walk with you and carry it again. He loves you.
He wants you to return to Him.

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