Needed or Enough?

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Jeffrey Thayne

This post may seem a little basic, but I believe that there are two terms that, if understood properly, may greatly help us understand how the doctrines of the Restoration may compare with the philosophies of the world. The two terms I would like to discuss today are necessary and sufficient.

Necessary: Required, needed, or essential

Sufficient: Enough, adequate

Here is an example of how these two terms may be used: A biological materialist might believe that biochemical processes in the human brain are sufficient to explain or account for all of human behavior. Latter-day Saints would unanimously believe that biochemical processes are necessary to account for human behavior, but far from sufficient. This is because we believe that agency plays a crucial role in human affairs. That is, we need brains to speak, but the processes of the brain are not enough to account for human language and activity. There is something that precedes our biology that is an important element in human activity.

I hope that an understanding of this difference will help us distinguish how the philosophies of the world may differ from the revealed truths of the Gospel. The doctrines of the Restoration, such as the reality of human agency, cause us to question some of the materialist assumptions of modern science, such as the belief that inert matter interacting according to scientific law is sufficient to account for all events in the world.


  1. Just a few of my usual quibbles.

    First off I’d be careful in saying Libertarian accounts of free will are necessary for LDS. You didn’t say that explicitly but when you say, “this is because we believe that agency plays a crucial role in human affairs,” it sure points to you making that assumption.

    I think the real reason Mormons would feel our humanity can’t be reduced to chemistry is due to the nature of the spirit. If the spirit is a difference substance then of necessity we are more than the chemistry of the brain.

    Even there we have some wiggle room since a functionalist could offer a lot here. (I’m not a functionalist and I don’t know too many functionalists but I’ve long thought a functionalist account of spirits would be rather interesting in LDS theology)

    Getting back to “biological materialist” I’m not quite sure what that is. But there certainly are many materialists who don’t think the mind is reducible purely to brain chemistry.

  2. Clark,

    Nowhere in this post did I reference libertarian accounts of free will. I’m not sure how saying that agency plays in a role in human affairs points to any particular rendition of what agency is. The existence of agency, however, is certainly an essential aspect of LDS thought. And I just don’t see agency in chemical reactions.

    I definitely agree that the reality of the spirit is evidence that we are more than the chemistry of our brain. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!


    Since, according to standard functionalist theories, mental states are the corresponding functional role, mental states can be sufficiently explained without taking into account the underlying physical medium (e.g. the brain, neurons, etc.) that realizes such states; one need only take into account the higher-level functions in the cognitive system. Since mental states are not limited to a particular medium, they can be realized in multiple ways, including, theoretically, within non-biological systems, such as computers. In other words, a silicon-based machine could, in principle, have the same sort of mental life that a human being has, provided that its cognitive system realized the proper functional roles. Thus, mental states are individuated much like a valve; a valve can be made of plastic or metal or whatever material, as long as it performs the proper function (say, controlling the flow of liquid through a tube by blocking and unblocking its pathway).

  4. Re: Clark’s response: “certainly are many materialists who don’t think the mind is reducible purely to brain chemistry.”

    I think this statement is correct, but only because some biological materialists do not understand the assumptions underlying their beliefs. Whether they realize it or not, biological materialists are biological determinists in the sense that relegating human experience to matter-in-motion according to the laws of nature negates choice and turns meaningful experiences into epi-phenomenon (e.g., love is not a real emotion, it is simply the firing of neurons in the brain).

    If more biological determinists realized the implications of their belief system, it might open their minds to alternative explanations for conscious experience, such as that there may be a spirit.

  5. Jeff, note I didn’t say you were talking about Libertarianism. But if one says that agency entails that materialism isn’t enough then that sort of follows necessarily.

    The argument that you can’t see agency in chemical reactions is basically a Libertarian argument. Those who accept normal emergence would have no trouble seeing agency as an emergent phenomena from the brain.

    Dave, I think that overstates things. For one most materialists aren’t determinists. Some are, thinking that any “randomness” is lost by the time one gets to the level of neurons. But many aren’t and can think that quantum phenomena can be significant at the level of neurological features. (I’ve recently read several arguments pro and con on that issue)

    Also the way you phrase it (“love is not a real emotion”) is distorting since the whole question is over what a real emotion is. To criticize a position as not real is typically because one had privileged ones own position as the real one. (I’m not saying you are doing this – just that the rhetoric is easily open to such a reading or misreading)

  6. Clark,

    Jeff, note I didn’t say you were talking about Libertarianism. But if one says that agency entails that materialism isn’t enough then that sort of follows necessarily.

    Jut because you deny materialism doesn’t mean that you have to embrace Libertarianism and its attendant conception of agency as fundamentally ungrounded and “random”. The mechanical determinism usually implied by materialism and the ungrounded freedom of Libertarianism aren’t the only two options on the table.

    The argument that you can’t see agency in chemical reactions is basically a Libertarian argument.

    True enough. But that doesn’t mean that it is only a Libertarian argument.

    Those who accept normal emergence would have no trouble seeing agency as an emergent phenomena from the brain.

    I’m sure they wouldn’t. However, they would nonetheless still have tremendous difficulty making a viable case for agency if they endorse emergentism.

    Ultimately, I find emergence arguments entirely unconvincing. They try to conjure away a serious conceptual problem by simply invoking a hefty word. I understand how new biological phenomena can emerge from other biological phenomena in such a way that the new phenomena can’t be adequately reduced back to the originary ones (there is evidence for these sorts of things). Likewise, I can understand how new social/psychological phenomena can emerge from other social/psychological phenomena in such a way that they cannot be adequately reduced back to the original sources (there is, here too, evidence for these sorts of things). However, I have yet to encounter a convincing argument for how any social/psychological phenomenon could emerge from any biological context. In the end, the whole thing strikes me as a version of a “creation from nothingness” appeal. The biological and the social are—at least in the traditional Cartesian view upon which emergentism hinges—two distinct ontological realms and you can’t adequately account for how something like agency arises out of (but is not reducible to) biology simply by invoking an abracadabra word like “emergence”. The word is just not weighty enough to support the claim that something that is fundamentally meaningful, moral, social, and contextual like human agency arises out of something mechanical (and, therefore, a-meaningful, a-contextual, a-moral, and a-social) like neuronal activity. It just manages to present the illusion of an explanation without actually bothering to provide the reality of an explanation.

  7. I will say, I think it is possible to believe that a social phenomenon may arise from matter if we believe that matter has social components—that is, if we believe matter can act purposefully and agentically from the very bottom up. However, right now matter is seen as either (1) inert, acting only when bumped by other matter or acted upon by a force, or (2) behaving erratically and randomly, according to the laws of statistics. Neither are purposeful or agentic, and thus I can’t see how bunch of this matter (conceived this way), no matter how sophisticatedly arranged, could produce a purposeful or agentic phenomenon.

  8. Ed, that’s fine. Although I think that’s basically an appeal to intuitions. And not everyone shares your intuitions, although they are quite common. (More interestingly, the intuitions appear to be context-dependent which is quite interesting—one of the more interesting results out of experimental philosophy)

    For the record, I’m a property dualist for largely the same reasons you outline. However I just think that in making these sorts of discussions, we just have to be careful not to take our intuitions for granted, i.e., the sort of talk where one position is obvious.

    I think that people within the LDS tradition can have differing intuitions on these issues. Further I’m rather distrustful of intuitions as providing any support for a position. They just say what our position is and not why we hold it. I think that LDS theology is open to many different readings here and I don’t want people to say LDS theology entails a particular ground when it’s really LDS theology plus a bunch of unstated intuitions some philosophers take for granted.

  9. Ed: Hmmmm. . . not sure why my quoted material didn’t show up in that last post. Sorry.

    Post the three statements you had intended to quote, and I’ll edit them back into your original post. (That way I’ll be able to contribute something to this conversation!) 🙂

  10. Clark,

    Please explain why you see me as making an appeal to intuitions. I don’t see where anything I said was based on intuition. I made two points:

    1. Materialist determinism and Libertarianism aren’t the only two positions available on the agency question, so just because Jeff rejected the one that doesn’t mean that he is endorsing or assuming the other.

    2. Appeals to emergence to account for agency typically assume that the biological and the social/psychological are two distinct ontological realms, and, insofar as they do so, anyone making such an appeal is going to have difficulty accounting for how exactly a phenomenon proper to one realm arises out of the other. Until such an account is made (and I have yet to see one), there are reasons to be suspicious of appeals to emergence as an account of agency.

    I don’t see how any of that is based on an appeal to intuition . . . except perhaps the intuition that rational argument is relevant here.

    Now, having said that, I also must say that I agree that we shouldn’t just assume our position is the correct and obvious one and proceed without articulating what our position is and why we hold it. However, again, I’m not sure I so much stated a position as I analyzed an argument (or, at least, a term that often stands in for an argument) and presented the reasons why I find it unconvincing. I think that just based on my written comments here that anyone would have a pretty tough time spelling out what exactly my position on the agency question is.

    By the way, when you wrote:

    “Further I’m rather distrustful of intuitions as providing any support for a position.”

    Why? Is it intuitively obvious that we should be distrustful of intuitions? 🙂

    Okay, I’m just joking around now. I, too, don’t think that intuition provides much in the way of support for a position—though it may have a great deal to do with arriving at the position in the first place.

  11. I’m not sure what text/codes you tried, but when I went to edit your comment, your pointy brackets:


    were coded like this:


    which means “less-than symbol” and “greater-than symbol.” Is that what you originally typed? If not, what code did you type when you tried to quote another comment?

  12. Ed, I think an intuition is like a belief. Actually it is basically just a premise in an argument. It is completely independent of how we arrived at it. I’ve sort of changed my view on this since I used to think it was a kind of cognitive process which, at least in theory, we could discuss as reliable. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I’ve come around to more of the Peircean view.

  13. Ed, I certainly don’t think the choices in the free will debate are either materialistic determinism or libertarianism. (Especially since I hold to neither of those positions) Sorry if it appeared I was pushing such a view. I do think that the kind of position being pushed by the original poster entailed libertarianism. But heaven knows I might be wrong in that. My whole point is that there are many philosophies under the sun so we should be careful about making assumptions that are “obvious” for reading LDS theology.

    Regarding emergence, I think you are confusing regular emergence (i.e. water out of hydrogen, oxygen and the laws of physics) with what is sometimes called ontological emergence or (by Searle) radical emergence. Certainly this latter kind of emergence pops up in the free will literature. O’Conner pushes for a version of it as does Clarke. In an LDS context Blake Ostler has been a big proponent although his version is wrapped up in his process theology and thus differs from the other two who are more traditional analytic philosophers.

    For the record I find ontological emergence complete bunk.

    However when I talk emergence I’m always careful to distinguish the two kinds.

  14. Clark,

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    I’m still not seeing how I implied libertarianism in the post. Simply saying that there is more involved in human affairs than can be accounted for by biochemical interactions doesn’t necessarily imply a libertarian free will—if so, perhaps you could explain why?

    I think what Dr. Gantt is saying is that by interpreting that statement as libertarian you imply the only alternative to a deterministic materialism is libertarianism. I know you don’t believe that, though, so perhaps you can explain how I implied it?

    As Dr. Gantt said, I don’t see agency as making ungrounded, unexplainable choices (how I’ve typically interpreted libertarianism).

  15. It doesn’t necessarily, although it does point to that. Consider the main positions in the free will debate. Most are materialistic. There is then event libertarianism (i.e. Kane’s position) but that is compatible with biochemical interactions. (Since it just requires a random moment) So if we are talking about how agency demands something beyond physics then that leaves agent libertarianism in terms of the positions. I’m just not aware of any other positions although perhaps in theory there could be some.

    I think libertarianism requires that while there are explanations they are underdetermined. (The determinism requirement of libertarianism) So Leibniz’ law fails. The ungrounding is basically the same thing. There is no necessary causes.

  16. Clark: I certainly don’t think the choices in the free will debate are either materialistic determinism or libertarianism. … There are many philosophies under the sun. …

    If we are talking about how agency demands something beyond physics then that leaves agent libertarianism in terms of the positions. I’m just not aware of any other positions.

    I’m confused. Do you believe agent libertarianism is the only alternative or not? (I also recognize that the various terms you all are using are starting to go beyond my background or understanding, so I may be missing some subtle distinctions.)

  17. I admit that I don’t like the “either/or” nature of this debate, mainly because it focuses on two sides of a debate which are highly dogmatic and unverifiable.

    Determinism essentially hinges upon the necessarily unprovable viewpoint that every event can be accounted for as a result of some other event. The logical mind reels at any attempt to explain every occurrence on the Earth as a result of some sort of “push”, mainly because it’s such a phenomenally-unprovable philosophy, even if we don’t take into account things like quantum theory, which, even in our limited understanding of the topic, throws a huge monkey wrench into the philosophy of determinism. Societal determinism, the likes of which are proposed by folk like Jared Diamond, is a little easier to rationalize, as it depends more on “reasons” for things and studies of which situations allow people to thrive without necessarily knocking at agency.

    The competing philosophy, proponed by folk like Dr. Gannt and our friend Jeff T. (Dr. Gannt by proxy), is leagues better in one way: it moves the argument a step away from concrete terms and definitions and toward something that we can relate to. Words like “antecedent”, “meaningful”, “context” and “necessary” serve as weaker forms of secular or determinist words like “cause” or “effect”.

    This isn’t necessarily wrong: we don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss the nth-level inscrutably-complex structure of this universe (a universe which has more depth and complexity than we could ever imagine or understand). Thus it’s beneficial not to throw away human agency altogether. I prefer to take the “wishy-washy” (I prefer to say “careful”) way out and worry less about figuring out “why things happen” and more time worrying about what I’m going to have for lunch.

    Still, the fact that this midrange sort of philosophy (one which states that things happen for reasons but not causes and that people do things because they want to but that their actions are also informed by other important “antecedents”) isn’t treated carefully but is thrown about so dogmatically by its proponents as another “only possible explanation” almost makes me want to throw it out altogether as well. After all, the assumption being made by these people is that real order and meaning cannot come from chaos, or, more precisely, that human disorder (and its accompanying emotions and agencies, all of which culminate nicely in everybody typing on keyboards) cannot come from orderly building blocks.

    It’s not really that any of these philosophies are wrong, per se (though I tend to lean away from strict determinism because my perception that I really do make choices is so vivid). It’s just that they’re stated so confidently by people as the only explanations, when in reality they’re just other possible explanations.

    I’ve meandered a bit, so here’s my thesis: When we all find out that strange loops and incompletedness theorem accounts for human consciousness without marginalizing agency, you’re all going to be sorry :).

  18. Clumpy, determinism is actually verifiable. If, for instance physics shows that there is four dimensionalism then there is determinism (although not necessarily causal determinism) While most accounts of GR assume a block universe (and thus determinism) the fact we don’t have a view reconciled with QM means we don’t yet know. But in theory it is verifiable.

    Likewise if God knows the future then determinism logically follows. Once again not causal determinism but something with similar properties.

    Now we don’t know now, but I think that the issue is verifiable.

    Nathan, I think that of the kind that reject materialism one ends up adopting Libertarianism. However one can reject materialism for reasons other than agency (and thus not accept Libertarianism). One could accept various kinds of property dualism where things get a tad trickier but if you need irreducible agency then, yeah, you’re stuck with Libertarianism.

    That’s not to say the only choices are Libertarianism or material determinism. They aren’t. But if one rejects materialism because of agency then I think one is led logically to Libertarianism. Maybe there is an other choice I’m just not seeing. I’m certainly not aware of any other alternatives though. Anyone who thinks there is I’d be interesting in hearing it. I’m always open to places my knowledge is lacking.

  19. Hmm. . . Clark, I don’t necessarily disagree with any specific of your comments, but when I say that I don’t think they’re necessarily valid I’m using the same degree of judgment I use with the philosophy taken up by this site.

    My point is that we’re so limited we can’t hope to prove what must “necessarily” follow from something else. For example, it’s difficult for us to dictate under which terms omniscience or omnipotence can be formed (getting back to your God statement), as we’re not omniscient and by our limited abilities to perceive and measure essentially only have a tiny subsect of “reality” to experiment on for our philosophical opinions (assuming, of course, that we ever see things the way they really happen).

    From a more scientific perspective, as a part of any system it’s impossible for us to understand or know about a larger system. Thus the methods we use to understand the universe and the data we gain from said methods must needs be part of our limited system and, as a rule, incomplete.

    The scientist, bless her heart, does the best she can to come up with a working model of how everything works based on study and the scientific method. The philosopher does the same, studying and adapting new information to fit into their current view of things (bless the philosopher’s heart also). But it’s impossible and we’re all so very cute for trying (especially the scientist, who, in my example, is female. And I’ve just turned the feminism inherent in not using “he” in the example on its head by making her the cute one).

    My point is that it’s just as unprovable that if “there is four dimensionalism then there is determinism” as it is to say that a brain made out of matter cannot make a choice. (Remember, read up on Strange Loops.)

  20. Four-dimensionalism (sometimes also called Eternalism) is the metaphysical claim that the future is as real as the present and past. In General Relativity the math and theory tend to entail what is called a block universe. i.e. you treat time akin to space and the whole thing exists at once. There are numerous arguments pro and con about this. Presentism is the claim that only the present exists. The problem is that in GR there isn’t an absolute present. The present for you is different from the present for me. This is one reason why people tend to see GR as entailing a block universe. But there are counter-arguments and so forth.

    Libertarian Free will requires Presentism since otherwise there is a truth of the matter about all future events and you can’t do otherwise than you do. (i.e. at some time t prior to the time of your choice it is already true what you will chose) So you’ll note that in Blake Ostler’s book he has a short section on this arguing that GR isn’t real but just apparent.

  21. From a more scientific perspective, as a part of any system it’s impossible for us to understand or know about a larger system.

    I don’t think I could agree with that. I’d say most physics claims to do just that.

    My point is that it’s just as unprovable that if “there is four dimensionalism then there is determinism” as it is to say that a brain made out of matter cannot make a choice.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Four dimensionalism logically entails a kind of determinism for the range of time/space in that four dimensional object. Now the way out is that if there are multiple universes then one universe doesn’t necessarily determine others. (And this is the view I actually favor, I should add) But within any given universe the future is determined.

  22. Clark, you understand that technically we’re all brains in jars or computer simulations or something so this whole conversation is vain :).

    “But within any given universe the future is determined.”

    At last, something we can agree on :). (My first smiling emoticon was more playful and this one is a little more ironic. It’s all the same ASCII but there’s a subtle difference.) But “determined” is a word we’re likely to misinterpret as people who move vocationally through 3 dimensions and passively through a fourth – meaning time, of course.

    As time is technically an illusion and the universe is just one vast “thing”, I suppose the future’s been determined from the standpoint that at some level time probably exists as some sort of static construct. Thankfully this doesn’t really end debates on free will or God – the fact that only one thing can happen at a time in a given universe is pretty obvious and mostly irrelevant for the practical context most debate relates to.

  23. I don’t think I can buy that time is an illusion. Nor that it is a “static construct.” I think discussions about time are exceedingly difficult. (At a minimum we have to distinguish carefully between phenomological time and physical time) But things get really tricky once modern physics is brought in.

  24. Well, time isn’t so much an illusion as something that we perceive in a certain way because of our limited nature to perceive. The way we view time effects our sense of cause and effect, so we naturally make certain assumptions about how it works. Of course it’s completely impossible to prove that time and space are some sort of combined, solid construct, but I find the idea intriguing.

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