Free Will, Neuroscience, and Sin

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.)


About Patrick K. Miller

Currently I am living in Columbia serving at the University of Missouri with Veritas, The Crossing's campus ministry. In December 2010 I graduated from Mizzou with a degree in English Literature. My beautiful wife, Emily, works is an Interior Designer with a local firm. I like espresso, 30 Rock, and books. My favorite old dead guys are John Owen, Augustine and Francis Schaeffer. You should read something by them.
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6 Responses to Free Will, Neuroscience, and Sin

  1. This reminds me of what I’ve been reading from Robert Kane, a philosopher at the University of Texas in Austin. He thinks there is genuine, undetermined free-will in agents despite the cause-effect relationships in the brain. He notes that there’s indeterminacy in nature at the quantum level, so when we’re feeling tension between two choices, perhaps that stirs up a level of “chaos” and indeterminacy in the way the neurons fire different chemicals in the brain. If this is true, then when we do make a decision, it is not determined, because the brain, or at least the appropriate regions of the brain, are in a state of indeterminacy. We weigh our reasons for accepting either option and will to make a choice, so the choice isn’t just completely arbitrary. This is the best I can describe it though.

    Piper’s article is interesting. I’ve always wondered if, in Calvinism, one might argue that that verse is superfluous because it’s promising that we can escape a temptation when in reality it’s determined by our sinful natures or by God whether we will or not. I’ll read it again.

  2. I understand the first part clearly, but I’m not sure that I follow you on your second implication of Eagleman’s thesis. The question, surely, is not whether it is fair to the criminal to be incarcerated, despite his or her crimes having been hardwired into their behavior, but whether locking up that person, unfairly or not, is an act of protection or benefit to society at large? That a criminal cannot help himself or herself does not necessarily make it “fair” to allow them to go free, and the natural way of a person is not objectively right.

    • Patrick K. Miller says:

      My point is that if Eagleman is correct, then society itself results from brain chemistry (albeit many brains). If this is true, then Eagleman must explain why society itself is valuable and WHY what society values is valuable. For instance, our society values women’s rights, while many middle-eastern societies do not value women’s rights. How do we know which society’s values are right? They both come from the same source, so how can we feasibly argue one is better than the other (except on our own personal moral grounds, which yet again differ depending on the society and therefore seem inarguable).

      My point is that taken to the extreme is that no society is morally defensible. Every society calls one subset of people “healthy citizens” and one subset of people “unhealthy criminal delinquents”. How we end up in which category is a mystery of brain science. All of this leads to the inevitable question: why does society matter, if society is so meaningless and indefensible.

      Michel Foucalt, the famous postmodernist philosopher/psychologist, argues along these lines to show that every society deems some sub-set of humanity as “criminal” so that those in power can be healthy, wealthy, “citizens.” In India if you’re born into a low caste, you are morally lower than everyone else, which of course makes those born in a high caste not only feel good about themselves, but also live healthy, wealthy, easy lives. Foucalt rightly calls this subjugation and oppression… Rightly, of course, if Eagleman is right and there is not free will.

      I, of course, would disagree with both Foucalt and Eagleman, because there is free will, and there is true good and evil. Moreover, that true and evil is not rooted in the meaningless processes of science and brian biology, it is rooted in the eternal character of the creator God.

  3. The only change I’d make is that Eagleman’s prognosis is deterministic, but not necessarily fatalistic. Fatalism says everything, or at least some things, happens by necessity, even if the event or decision is causally undetermined. Certain events are unavoidable no matter what people do. If event D is fated, then I can do A, B, or C, and D will still happen. Determinism actually says every event is a necessary effect of an antecedent cause. Event B happens because specific event A caused it.

    Hope that’s not too nitpicky!

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