Daily Archives: March 4, 2013

The necessity of agency

It says: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.
The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.
It says: In the beginning was the Mind.
Ponder that first line, wait and see,
Lest you should write too hastily.
Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force.
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,
That my translation must be changed again.
The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.
I write: In the beginning was the Act.

— Goethe, Faust (Kaufmann translation)

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

— Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 93:30

For several years now I have maintained the position that belief in “free will,” in the normally accepted sense of that term, is logically incoherent and not-even-false, that it is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism and as such could not be a feature of any conceivable universe. (See my posts Free will: a problem for everyone, Free will and the limits of reason, and A concise statement of the problem of free will.) Now, after protracted reflection on the kalam paradox, I am recanting that position. I now accept the philosophical necessity of free will — or, to use more precise language, of agency. The universe must include things that act, over and above things that merely happen.

This means that I am rejecting one of the axioms on which my past reasoning about free will was based. Contrary to what I wrote in my first post on free will, there is — must be — “something which is neither chance nor necessity nor a combination of the two.” I am obviously well aware of the paradoxical nature of this position — but the scales have tipped, and I now consider this particular complex of paradoxes to be more philosophically acceptable than that which arises from the contrary position.


I will probably be explaining this further in future posts, or at least attempting to do so. (The topic is notoriously difficult even to think clearly about, to say nothing of writing!) At this point I merely wish to notify my readers that I have changed my mind on this point and no longer stand by what I have written in the past about free will.


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Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

Motivated in part by my correspondence with Bruce Charlton, who holds the book in high esteem, I recently reread the entire Book of Mormon for the first time in about 12 years. Where my past readings of the book had always been slow and drawn-out, a chapter or two a day, this time I read the whole thing in two weeks — and did most of that reading in two (non-consecutive) days, during two long flights between Taiwan and the United States.

Reading the whole book in such a short period of time, you naturally notice things you wouldn’t otherwise about the structure and unity of the book as a whole. One little thing that caught my attention this time was a rhetorical device which is virtually absent from the Bible but which appears again and again throughout the Book of Mormon: rhetorical yes/no questions which the speaker or writer answers himself with “(Behold,) I say unto you, Yea/Nay.”


Given how closely the diction of the Book of Mormon is patterned after that of the King James Bible, it is somewhat surprising that this particular formula doesn’t appear in the KJV at all. The closest it comes is “I tell you, Nay,” which is used three times by Luke’s Jesus (Luke 12:51; 13:3, 5). Jeremiah also twice answers a rhetorical question with a simply “nay,” with nothing corresponding to “I say unto you” (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12). Unless I’ve missed something, nowhere else in the entire Bible does a speaker or writer answer his own yes/no questions. (In fact, the words yea and nay in general occur far less frequently in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon. As a proportion of the total number of words in the book, nay is 2.3 times more frequent in the BoM than in the KJV, and yea is a whopping 10.7 times more frequent — making the latter even more characteristic of BoM language than the infamous “it came to pass,” for which the figure is 8.8.)

In the Book of Mormon, on the other hand, rhetorical questions followed by “(Behold,) I say unto you Yea/Nay” occur 33 times — recorded by at least 5 different writers and attributed to 12 different speakers spanning the entire thousand-year history of the Nephites.

No. Speaker References
8 Nephi 1 Ne. 15:16; 17:33, 34. 2 Ne. 26:25-28; 31:19
1 Jacob Jacob 2:14
1 Jarom Jarom 1:2
1 King Benjamin Mosiah 5:14
3 Abinadi Mosiah 12:37; 13:26, 32
10 Alma the Younger Alma 5:8, 9, 25; 7:17; 32:18, 29, 31, 35, 36; 42:25
2 Amulek Alma 11:24; 34:11
2 Ammon Alma 26:31, 33
1 Captain Moroni Alma 60:23
1 Jesus Christ 3 Nephi 12:26
1 Moroni Mormon 9:15
2 Mormon Moroni 7:29, 37

The prevalence of this structure throughout the book could be seen as a small piece of evidence that it is the work of one person (Joseph Smith) rather than of several different writers who lived hundreds of years apart. This fact that the structure also occurs in Joseph Smith’s own writings (see Doctrine & Covenants 84:59; 132:35) lends support to this interpretation.

Alternatively, for believers in the historicity of the book, the structure could be seen as a rhetorical device which became conventional among the Nephites — apparently originating with Nephi himself and subsequently imitated by his descendants down through the centuries. By the first century, it was apparently so well entrenched that Jesus himself felt the need to insert it into the Sermon on the Mount in order to meet the rhetorical expectations of his Nephite audience.


Filed under Book of Mormon