Biological Determinism

This is the 9th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth.  The first blog in the series is  “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Wilson’s Critique of Religion (V).

When it comes to issues in which science and religion are at loggerheads, I don’t think Genesis 1-3 was written as a modern science textbook, and so it asks and answers a different set of questions than modern science is addressing.  The Bible is answering the question, “What does it mean to be human?”  The physical sciences study humans as part of the empirical universe and are not concerned with questions about meaning nor about whether there is something more to being human beyond the physical realities they study.

Not everything that physical scientists study or claim is viewed as hostile to religion by all who believe in God.   Some issues which put religion and science at odds really are issues which I might frame as being that set of believers who are biblical literalists vs. science.  These are issues that not all Christians have any concern over because not all Christians are biblical literalists. Arguments about “creation science” fall in this category.  While Christians believe in a Creator, not all Christians would agree that the Genesis creation narrative is to be read as a scientific text book nor even as a factually historic account of what happened.  Even numerous Patristic writers acknowledged that Genesis 1 might be better understood in terms of eons instead of days.

Some other issues which science and religion debate can be thought of as philosophical disagreements – for example debates about free will or the existence of a soul often are arguments which are framed in terms which are philosophical assumptions and not just scientific facts.  If one assumes that everything in the universe can be explained by empirical cause and effect, then one philosophically cannot allow “miracles” or a soul to exist.  Also, some issues are just fundamental disagreements in faith issues which are not going to be bridged by offering proofs.  If one comes to a belief that God exists, that conclusion may be reached by personal experience and evidence which one sees in history or in the lives of others, but these truly become issues of personal faith (what I believe) which others may never experience or understand.   My own experience in life has led me to conclude that the physical sciences, whose basic truths I accept, still do not and cannot answer the question what it means to be human.  I accept on faith that humanity cannot be fully understood by reducing ourselves to the basic chemical reactions which happen in the body.  I accept that chemistry and physics can offer a completely true picture of what transpires in our bodies without offering the complete truth about what it means to be human.  I don’t think a human being is explained by reducing him or her to those atomic or subatomic interactions.  I believe there is more to be being human than mere chemistry.

Consequently I am not in the philosophical camp of atheistic materialism, and I don’t assume that anything a human does is explained by biological determinism – the basic cause and effect explanation which Wilson does accept.  Empirical cause and effect may accurately describe the biological and chemical reactions which compose all of the carbon based life forms on earth, but I do not believe they fully explain what it is to be human.  I do accept the idea that humans have free will and a soul, and that we are social beings and that there is also a sociological reality which is not purely based in materialism.  Humans cooperate on a grand scale by sharing abstract ideas and emotions through language, art and religion.

Of course since we are biological beings, all mental activity will show up as a biological activity, but that doesn’t mean the biological activity is the sole or complete explanation of the mental activity.  Thus I think consciousness is real and does somehow exist as an entity distinct from the biological brain activities to which it is related.   That neuroscience can detect chemical and electric impulses in the brain is expected – we are spiritual beings whose spiritual lives are experienced through our physical bodies.  Prayer involves our entire physical selves.  Spirituality and physicality are not separable in a human being.

Wilson looks at all issues of being human purely from the point of view of biological determinism and assumes biology can explain everything about being human.

“ARE PEOPLE INNATELY GOOD, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”  (Kindle Loc. 3883-87)

Believers can certainly accept Wilson’s contention that humans are both capable of good and evil, and are influenced by forces which are either good or evil.  The disagreement would be with his statement that only by changing our genes can human behavior be changed.  His thought is pure biological determinism, while the Orthodox Christian tradition would say the very purpose of religion is to call us to overcome such “genetic” or moral limitations on our free will.  We certainly would not agree that all changes in humanity require a genetic change.  We do believe there are things to which we are genetically disposed, but that does not completely determine what we do.   Wilson writes:

“Still, we cannot escape the question of free will, which some philosophers still argue sets us apart. It is a product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action. The more the physical processes of consciousness have been defined by scientific research, the less has been left to any phenomenon that can be intuitively labeled as free will. We are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds. Free will therefore appears to be ultimately biological.”   (Kindle Loc. 4625-30)

Free will certainly appears ultimately to be biological especially if the philosophical assumption is that anything human is ultimately explained as solely or merely a biological function.   Wilson’s philosophical assumption leads him to conclude that free will must be a merely a biological function.  We would say that free will in as much as it involves thought certainly involves the brain and so there are cerebral processes that must be happening whenever one is engaged in thought.  Our disagreement with Wilson would be a reductionist approach that says thought or free will must be coterminous with neurological activity.  Certainly the writings of atheist scientist Raymond Tallis on the existence of consciousness challenge the assumptions of Wilson and perhaps are more congenial with the assumptions which theists make about what it is to be human.

Next:  Biological Determinism (II)