Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Choice Point: A Response to MoJo

Moriah's responses to "The Haunting 'I'" (here and here) have had me thinking about the intersection of psychopathology and agency, about the place of psychopaths (serial killers included) in the plan of happiness. As Moriah says, "I'm not sure sometimes why these people (psychopaths, serial killers, whatever) are here. I have theories and speculations." As do I. And they center in the complex interaction between an individual's biology, sociology, temperament, and agency, an interaction Moriah also seems to imply, or at least to consider, in her reference to the Prodigal Son as pattern for our eternal "coming home at last": the point where we finally turn and return to God as a result of life choices and circumstances that have taken us away from Him or from reaching for Him and through which we may have become bogged down in "riotous living" (though I could be completely off reading her comment this way. Forgive me, please, if that's the case, MoJo).

An acknowledgment of this complexity also seems to trouble the surface of this comment: "Most days I wonder what, if any, control these people actually have over their actions. If, once they make ONE CHOICE, they're doomed to follow that path." And while I'm not sure if one choice alone can be the determining factor in the development of certain psychopathological tendencies, I am fairly confident that our agency can be limited, our choices determined by forces beyond our control. Doing some Googling to the tune of "LDS + psychopathology" this morning, I dredged up this article in the July 1973 New Era by Allen E. Bergin, prominent Mormon psychologist and once professor at BYU, in which he advances toward a theory of human agency. (Like the mixed metaphors in that sentence---music and dredging?)

The first thing I thought when I read the article, which is based on Bergin's research findings, was (in a completely unrelated vein) how far the Church magazines have moved from essays of this complex bend. They've become far more simple (simplistic?) through the years, though my speculations as to why are the subject for another day. The second thing I considered was how Bergin's biases as a conservative Latter-day Saint and psychologist may have shaped his findings. I found this section especially telling in this regard:
[W]hile I do not look to psychology for my salvation or that of mankind, I do view it (together with the related behavioral sciences) as one of the most exciting and potentially useful fields of inquiry that exists. While some of its practitioners promote bizarre theories and engage in unethical behavior, the major thrust of the field is a positive and progressive one. I suggest in all candor and sincerity that psychology is as fundamental to the implementation of the principles of gospel living (the Christian life-style) as medical science is to the implementation of the Word of Wisdom. Just as biomedical research reveals to us the mechanisms underlying the principles of the Lord’s code of physical health and thereby provides us with a more positive control over the health of our bodies, so also, behavioral science informs us of the processes underlying revealed principles of living and provides us with improved power to promote the health of mind and spirit. Psychology is thus as basic to the study of living as biochemistry is to the study of life. It is, in my estimation, the most important secular subject matter for Latter-day Saints to know.
Interesting language: Psychology as "the most important subject matter" for us to know. Insightful, yes, and helpful when analyzing motives and searching for understanding of behavior; but the most important? Maybe. Maybe not.

Anyway, though I take exception with some of Bergin's language, biases, and assertions (I have my biases, too, so I won't take him to task today), I found these thoughts, found in the section titled "Determiners of Behavior at a Choice Point," especially enlightening in terms of present considerations:
All human acts are determined by multiple influences. We may identify six broad classes of influence as: (1) cultural, social, or environmental controls; (2) biological factors; (3) habits of response that have been conditioned, especially by childhood experiences; (4) feelings or emotions; (5) thoughts, ideas, or beliefs; and (6) spiritual inspiration.

It would be preferable if human beings acted upon the latter three factors primarily, but unfortunately their behavior is too often dominated by influences outside of their control. If we are to be wise, receive the truth, and take the Holy Spirit for our guide as suggested in D&C 45:57, we must learn to optimize the influence of higher processes in our actions. Otherwise, we lose our power of independent action and are “encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell” (Alma 5:7) and then “are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction.” (Alma 12:11)
He goes on to discuss the varying degrees of control we each exercise in our lives as a whole and at different moments therein, suggesting that, at any given "choice point" (I like that phrase), we still possess some sense of control, nominal as it may be in certain circumstances and for different people, including the sociopath.

And all of this, I think, is just a long way of responding to Moriah (I hope I haven't mutilated your comments!), of saying that human agency is a complex principle and that, by extension, it's a difficult thing to judge what degree of control an individual has at any given point in his or her life. If I had more time, I'd explore this in greater detail, but I think it's a beginning. Suffice it conclude, for now, that I thank God that we have in Him a Judge whose unique Being (fullness of justice, mercy, knowledge, love, etc.) allows him to consider all these things when determining our eternal fate---and that I won't be the one doing the doing the final judging.