What do all three of these have in common? In a recent essay, Baylor Neuroscientist David Eagleman unveiled how neuroscience is exorcizing the demon of free will, and thereby presenting a troubling question: is anyone really responsible for their sin?
In the essay, Eagleman shows how all ‘anti-social behaviors’ (i.e. sins) develop from biological problems. He cites schizophrenics, tourettes patients, and sleepwalking murderers as examples. Now, certainly there is some truth in this – we live in a fallen world, with fallen biology that causes our brains and our bodies to malfunction in destructive ways. But can we blame our biology for our sin? Are we just machines playing out our genetic make-up in response to environmental stimuli?
Eagleman seems to think so. He writes,
There is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with – and driven by – other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore ‘free.’ … [Therefore] one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually begin to think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about diabetes or lung disease.
He begs us to show empathy and compassion for criminals, because they were dealt the bad brain cards, while we got the good ones. They deserve sympathy because they couldn’t help doing wrong, their brain chose for them.
Of course there is a reason to feel compassion for all prisoners, but not because they “couldn’t help it.” No, we feel compassion for all people, because they are the images of God. They’ve been endowed by creator with and honor and dignity that deserves our deepest regards, care, and love. Eagleman’s argument for compassion, however, undermines human dignity.
How? Part of our dignity is our free will. Eagleman’s prognosis is fatalistic; we are automatons on a crash course for a destiny that we cannot choose or change. This diagnosis is depressing, because it steals all value and meaning from our lives. If we cannot be held responsible for our worst acts, then we certainly cannot be held responsible for our best acts. Let’s tease out two implications of Eagleman’s thesis:
Regardless of education, effort, and difficulty, all people should be reimbursed equally for their work (or lack there of). If my brain biology allows me to become a successful lawyer, while your brain biology only allows you to work at McDonalds, why should I receive any additional monetary benefit? If it’s all a result of the brain lottery, I deserve no such right! Eagleman wants things to be fair, so why doesn’t he write an essay about why lawyers and fast food works should be paid the same?
Societies have no right incarcerate or punish criminal activity. Though Eagleman says we should continue incarcerating criminals (so that we can rehabilitate them through brain therapies), his conclusion is inconsistent. If human life is simply brain science played out, then how can we call one person a criminal and another a law abiding citizen? Neither man can choose their path (criminality or citizenship), because both lifestyles are chosen for them by nature, and if chosen by nature, then both ways must be natural. If that’s true, then on what grounds do we prefer one lifestyle over the other? Laws hold no true moral weight, because even they must be the result of our brain chemistry! Why shouldn’t citizens be imprisoned for their lack of criminality? Either way prison and punishment are unfair acts of coercion.
When we follow Eagleman’s argument to it’s logical end, we find ourselves in a lifeless desert. There’s no meaning, no goodness, no evil, no worth, no guilt, and no human dignity.
Eagleman fell short, because he mistakenly believed that science could enter into “the domain of philosophers and psychologists” and theologians, I might add. He’s overreaching the bounds of his field; science can only prove things about the empirical, physical universe. Science cannot, however, prove anything about the metaphysical universe: morality, free will, justice, the existence of God or a spiritual world – these things are all unscientific, which, contrary to common parlance, does not mean false.
We are free willing creatures, responsible for our actions before a holy God who knows us better than a MRI. By our free will we sinned against God, and he takes our human dignity seriously by holding us accountable for our sin. Thankfully God is not only, but also loving, so in his holy love he bore the penalty for our sin on the cross, if only we trust in him.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)
Eagleman wants us to trade God for a brain scan. He’d have us lay our human dignity on the altar of science. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, yes, so wonderfully that even brain science will fail to plumb the depths of our nature.
(for more on how God’s foreknowledge does not dissolve our free will, check in tomorrow for a blog by Kyle Hendricks, for more on the nature of God’s sovereignty and our free will – namely to sin – you can read this article by Piper.)