Freedom and Suffering

St. John the Forerunner

Dostoevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.”  (Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 93)

The Anthropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?

Humans have for centuries contemplated the “super natural” forces that control human history.  Some decided that what explains human behavior is the force of original sin, which humans can’t escape and which drive them to evil deeds.  For though the world and humans created by God were declared “very good” in the Scriptures (Genesis 1), it was obvious that sin also abounded among us creatures.

Later in history those who rejected spiritual explanations, formed their own ideas about the forces governing humans – evolution and genetics.  These are “natural” forces but super in that they affect all of life and some felt they can’t be resisted, so they predestine humans just as much as some believed original sin did.  So many forces predetermining human behavior.

Today, even science seems to be coming to grips with a notion that humans might have a lot more power in them than science ever acknowledged.  For now, scientists are coming to recognize that something is happening in evolution – humans are no longer merely controlled by it, but are shaping it, not only in themselves but throughout the world.    In the article “The Anthropocene Should Bring Awe-and Act As a Warning” written by Justin Worland (TIME magazine, Sep 12, 2016), we read:

As Geological epochs have come and gone throughout Earth’s vast history, shifts have often correlated with large-scale global changes like ice ages and mass extinctions. An asteroid hits the planet, wiping out the dinosaurs, and the Cretaceous period becomes the Tertiary. Until now, life on Earth–including us late-arriving Homo sapiens–was along for the ride. But on Aug. 29, some scientists at a meeting of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) in South Africa said human activity has grown so powerful that it is forcing a change of the geological calendar: Earth has entered a new epoch, called the Anthropocene, defined by humans and our effect on the planet.


For 12,000 years, we lived through an epoch known as the Holocene, which provided a stable and relatively warm climate that allowed humans to develop everything from agriculture to atomic power. But that success remade the planet we live on through widespread deforestation, overfishing of the oceans, the extinction of countless species and the altering of the planet’s climate through the emission of greenhouse gases. Most telling is the spread of radioactive material across Earth since 1950 as a result of the testing of nuclear bombs. Humans brought an end to the Holocene quickly–no other geological epoch lasted fewer than several million years.

The random process of evolution may be changing as humans have a mind of their own and have proven they can consciously (and sometimes conscientiously) change the planet.  Evolution, from the scientific view, is no longer a random process, subject to random forces, but is being influenced, and even shaped by, conscious human choices.  Evolution is thought to have brought into being, sentient humans, who are conscious and capable of choice, capable of shaping their future, as well as the process of evolution.  Perhaps the anthropic principle will take on new meaning as science acknowledges the truth of what is transpiring in the physical universe.  The observers of the universe are no longer merely observing for they are shaping the world, for good or ill.  Worland concludes:

The IUGS gets the final vote on the geological calendar, and while scientists in its working group on the Anthropocene overwhelmingly recommended the new designation at the South Africa meeting, it has yet to be confirmed. But momentum has been building behind the Anthropocene for some time. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, first described this human-influenced era more than a decade ago with a focus on climate change. The downside of human influence should be obvious–we’re not just changing our planet but destroying it. Yet there’s a silver lining. If we are powerful enough to cause these problems, we might also solve them. “Unless there is a global catastrophe,” Crutzen wrote in the journal Nature, “mankind will remain a major environmental force for many millennia. A daunting task lies ahead.”

If humans can consciously shape the world in which they live, won’t they need more than ever to also think about conscience, right and wrong, good and evil?  We don’t have to move blindly into the Anthropocene.  We can choose our future.  We need wisdom more than ever, and an understanding of humanity that includes free will, conscience and responsibility for all we do.

Maybe, more now than ever, we do need to consider the wisdom of God, for perhaps we are not the only beings capable of creating the future.  We didn’t bring ourselves into existence, we only recently began to consciously shape our history and planet, we really have a lot to learn.

A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History

This is the 3rd 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 A Few Unique Traits of Humans.

Wilson is an effective story teller and he does offer a potential history of how evolutionary history unfolded leading to the appearance of modern humans.  That is the heart of his book, and I recommend you read his book because the history is fascinating.  Even if you have doubts about evolution, you can still see how evolutionary theorist piece together and interpret the evidence they have before them.  Certainly as Wilson describes the evidence and the history there are lots of uncertainties, possibilities and probabilities that make up the story, and while it may be the best construct of the existing evidence, one realizes some of this history is guesswork and some parts of the history no doubt are going  to be overturned as new evidence is discovered.  That certainly is the nature of science and the meaning of “truth” in the evolutionary context.   While Wilson is committed to evolutionary theory, it does seem to me in the book he expresses in various ways that the story he is telling is possibly the story based on current evidence but some of the story is interpretation and educated guesses to fill in gaps in knowledge.

That evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing change based on new discoveries and evidence is made obvious in such news reports as as found in England’s  THE INDEPENDENT, Fossil Discovery Rewrites the Story of Human Evolution.   Some will argue the sensational headline’s claim that the discovery “rewrites” the story of human evolution is an exaggeration, nevertheless my read of Wilson is that he would be totally comfortable with rewriting chapters in his book if new evidence led to new theories or a new storyline.  We will get back to debates between science and religion in this series in the near future.

Wilson offers an overview of what his book is about:

“LIKE ALL GREAT PROBLEMS in science, the evolutionary origin of humanity first presented itself as a tangle of partly seen and partly imagined entities and processes. Some of these elements occurred well back in geological time, and may never be understood with certainty. I have nevertheless pieced together those parts of the epic on which I believe researchers agree, and filled in the remainder with informed opinion. The sequence, given in broad strokes, is the consensus I believe to be correct, or at least most consistent with existing evidence.”  (Kindle Loc. 762-67)

Before getting to the controversies between science and religion, below are a few facts from Wilson’s evolutionary timeline which I found interesting.  Keep in mind Wilson’s term “eusociality” which means multiple generations of a species living together with “an altruistic division of labor.”  Humans have eusociality as do some bees and ants.  Very few species have actually developed this trait despite its apparent evolutionary advantage.

“The eusocial insects are almost unimaginably older than human beings. Ants, along with their wood-eating equivalents the termites, originated near the middle of the Age of Reptiles, more than 120 million years ago.”  (Kindle Loc 725-26)

“The oldest known stone tools, knapped crudely to serve some function or other, date to 6–2 million years before the present.”  (Kindle Loc. 677-78)

“The first hominins, with organized societies and altruistic division of labor among collateral relatives and allies, appeared at best 3 million years ago.”  (Kindle Loc 7207-28)

“By two million years before the present, the favored australopithecine line had begun the transition to the still-larger-brained Homo erectus. This species had a brain smaller than that of present-day Homo sapiens, but it was able to shape crude stone tools and use controlled fire at campsites. Its populations spread out of Africa, blanketing the land up into northeastern Asia and pushing south all the way to Indonesia.”   (Kindle Loc. 1378-82)

“By 200,000 years before the present, the African ancestors had come anatomically closer to contemporary humans. The populations also used more advanced stone tools and may have engaged in some form of burial practice. But their skulls were still relatively heavy in construction.”  (Kindle Loc. 1426-27)

“Burials began at least 95,000 years ago, as evidenced by thirty individuals excavated at Qafzeh Cave in Israel. One of the dead, a nine-year-old child, was positioned with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. That arrangement alone suggests not just an abstract awareness of death but also some form of existential anxiety.”  (Kindle Loc. 4502-4)

“Only around 60,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens broke out of Africa and began to spread around the world, did people acquire the complete skeletal dimensions of contemporary humanity.”  (Kindle Loc. 1428-29)

The “’creative explosion’ that began approximately 35,000 years ago in Europe. From this time on until the Late Paleolithic period over 20,000 years later, cave art flourished. Thousands of figures, mostly of large game animals, have been found in more than two hundred caves distributed through southwestern France and northeastern Spain…”  (Kindle Loc. 4507-9)

“’Flutes,’ technically better classified as pipes, fashioned from bird bones, have been found that date to 30,000 years or more before the present.”  (Kindle 4551-2)

“In a very early time, from the Late Paleolithic period through the Mesolithic period, the cultural evolution of humanity ground forward slowly. At the beginning of the Neolithic period, 10,000 years before the present, with the invention of agriculture and villages and food surpluses, cultural evolution accelerated steeply. Then, thanks to the expansion of trade and by force of arms, cultural innovations not only increased faster but also spread much farther.”  (Kindle 1619-23)

There were so many other aspects of the story that I found fascinating, but the above are a few “highlights” of the human evolutionary story according to Wilson.  I value the comments for what they contribute to an understanding of what it means to be human.  To be human is not simply to be the passive victim of biological determinism.  To be human is to create, is to feel, is to worship and is to believe in something greater than one’s self.   We’ll turn now to a more controversial aspect of Wilson’s writings:  his criticism of religion.

Next: Wilson’s Critique of Religion

The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind

This is the 5th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self expressed in two books: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  The previous blog is Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

While both Gazzaniga and Tallis embrace evolution, they are also very clear that humans are not merely chimps who have evolved slightly.   They both agree that humans have evolved in unique ways which are far beyond all the other creatures on the planet and far beyond anything which the scientific evidence would predict.

“So the question still remains: how is it that certain configurations of matter should be aware, should suffer, fear, enjoy and so on?  There is nothing in the properties of matter that would lead you to expect that eventually certain configurations of it (human bodies) would pool that experience and live in a public world.  No wonder many materialistically inclined philosophers like to deny the real existence of consciousness.”  (Tallis, p 175)

The appearance of consciousness according to Tallis is a real problem for the adherents of scientism and materialism, which they cannot adequately explain and so they simply dismiss.  Tallis, himself an atheist, sees their response as scientifically insufficient.

“The truth is, no theory of matter will explain why material entities (e.g. human beings) are conscious and others are not.  The phenomena described in physics are present equally in conscious and unconscious beings; indeed, they are universally distributed through the material world.  So they provide no account of the difference between, say, a thought and a pebble, which is the kind of difference that any theory of consciousness worthy of the name must be able to capture.”  (Tallis, p 119)

Tallis especially recognizes that there is some part of being human – the self or consciousness which are in fact “immaterial” and thus cannot be fully accounted for by the current assumption of materialists/scientism.   He argues that this simply has to be recognized as fact if science is in fact going to deal with truth.  Remember, he is an atheist and certainly has no interest in ideas such as the “soul” or spirit. (His very comments raise another obvious question for scientists who deny the existence of self or free will – who or what exactly is trying to deal with the truth about materialism a collection of cells which have no other purpose than to help ensure their own continuation?  The existence of scientists studying humans is great evidence that humans have evolved beyond all other animals).  Gazzaniga raises similar questions or issues to those of Tallis:

“The arrogance of the particle physicist and his intensive research may be behind us (the discoverer of the positron said ‘the rest is chemistry’), but we have yet to recover from that of some molecular biologists, who seem determined to try to reduce everything about the human organism to ‘only’ chemistry, from the common cold and all mental disease to the religious instinct. Surely there are more levels of organization between human ethology and DNA than there are between DNA and quantum electrodynamics, and each level can require a whole new conceptual structure.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2143-47)

Here Gazzaniga raises the issue that only if we practice a reductionism which ignores organic reality can deal with some basic cellular interaction while completely ignoring the many levels of organization of which the cells are but one part.   In literary studies it is like studying only the written text while ignoring the entire literary and social context in which that text exists.  We can try to break down human consciousness and study it only on the cellular level but then we have to ignore that cells exists as part of greater bodies which in turn exist as parts of society, etc.

“…humans enjoy mental states that arise from our underlying neuronal, cell-to-cell interactions. Mental states do not exist without those interactions. At the same time, they cannot be defined or understood by knowing only the cellular interactions. Mental states that emerge from our neural actions do constrain the very brain activity that gave rise to them. Mental states such as beliefs, thoughts, and desires all arise from brain activity and in turn can and do influence our decisions to act one way or another.”  (Gazzaniga,  kindle Loc. 1695-99)

An issue that becomes obvious is whether the brain is merely a materialistic object which reacts to stimuli, or whether it somehow becomes an actor in the process – as Tallis says not merely living but leading life.  Something – self or consciousness or free will – something immaterial is present that begins to act upon the material world.

“So while the brain is sensitive to the impingements of the outside world, via the sense organs, it is also a filter regulating its own sensitivity, giving priority to essential and novel stimuli – relevant to survival – over irrelevant and unimportant events.”  (Tallis, p 21)

Consciousness becomes a factor in what is happening in the empirical world.

Next:  The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind (II)

The Matter of Evolution

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:26)

This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self expressed in two books: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  The previous blog is  The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II).

While both Gazzaniga and Tallis accept the basics tenets of Darwinian evolution, both authors note to differing degrees disagreement with the growing emphases  in some evolutionary thinkers that:  a) humans are nothing different than any other animal  and,  b) humans should not distinguish themselves from other animals or really from the rest of matter since we are nothing but an animal and matter ourselves.  This is a philosophical assumption of scientism based in materialism.  Interestingly, Tallis, an atheist and secular humanist, argues vehemently that human evolution has in fact moved to the point that we are not simply evolving deterministically based solely in the laws of physics.  We have emerged as a creature which interacts with and influences its evolution and so we are not merely the deterministic effects of an endless chain of materialistic causes.

“…neuromaniacs and Darwinitics seem unable to notice or accept that, for many hundreds of thousands of years we have been drifting away from our biological origins and from our solitary bodies and solitary brains and have been weaving a collective space on which we each have our own individual take.  … So to try  to find our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial darkness  of the organism illuminated by the fMRI scans and other technology is to look right past what it is that makes us human beings, and makes us what we, and our lives are.”  (Tallis, p237)

Tallis sees as a major part of and proof of the human distinctiveness from all other animals is that humans have created a collective space in which we share ideas and communicate abstractions including notions of the past and future.  It is because of this “immaterial” space of intellectual and abstract ideas which we also turn into the stuff we invent to advance our lives on earth that Tallis dismisses as not being proven at all the new neuroscientifc claims that they have identified memories and ‘free will’ as nothing more than biochemical train reactions in the brain.   Tallis sees in human evolution that “we actively lead our lives rather than merely live them” (p 242).  We have in many aspects taken control of our life on earth rather than merely being determined by it.  So while he accepts evolution, he rejects the biological determinism of scientism as being inappropriately applied to humanity which has evolved in a unique way which allows us to actually influence and affect our live on earth and our future evolution.

Tallis critically sees a type of circular reasoning in which the scientists who believe in materialism,  see only materialism at work; then since they only see materialism at work they argue that this proves that materialism is the only force at work.   What they believe becomes without proof the proof for what they believe.  Thus he argues that the current fascination by neuroscientists (he himself is one) with fMRI scans is misplaced and is not at all proving what they claim:  that there is no free will in humans only biochemical activity in the empirical brain.  (We will get back  to this claim in a future blog, but see also my Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will in which I question what the new neuroscience has in fact proven).  Tallis takes images right from Darwinian explanations in defining what has in fact occurred in evolution:

“The challenge is to imagine, how, ultimately out of the blind forces of physics, there arose the sighted watchmakers that we are; or, less ambitiously, how we came to be fundamentally different from other creatures and not merely exceptionally gifted chimps.”  (Tallis, p 214)

Where some atheists claim if there is a watchmaker which created the universe, it is the blind watchmaker of chance, Tallis while denying any God says humans have emerged as sighted watchmakers who are now actively engaging the universe in our own continued evolution.   He affirms free will and the value of humans in the universe, things which theists have accepted for centuries.

Michael Gazzaniga offers similar thoughts in his book: evolution has taken a turn in humanity and our intellect and brains are evolving differently than are the rest of the animals on the planet.

“With this mounting evidence of physical anatomical differences, differences in connectivity, and differences in cell type, I think that we can say that the brains of humans and the brains of other animals appear to differ in how they are organized, which, when we truly come to understand it, will help us understand what makes us so different.”  (Kindle Loc. 668-71)

“Modern neuroanatomists are quick to point out that as you climb the primate scale to humans, it is not that additional skills are simply being added on as once was hypothesized, but the whole brain is getting rearranged throughout.”  (Kindle Loc. 495-97)

Thus humans, though following the natural path of evolution, have emerged as a species quite distinct from all other animals in the evolutionary process.  It is not only that we think differently, but we create shared intelligence, and the very nature of our cell types and of the arrangement of our physical brains is causing an ever greater distance to emerge between the human animal and the rest of the created world.

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

Tallis argues that too many modern philosophers even are way too eager to cave in to the unproven claims of neuroscience that humans are nothing but predetermined beings pushed through time by the irresistible forces of nature.  He calls for humanists to show a little more backbone and a lot more brainpower in confronting the claims of scientism.

“The distinctive features of human beings – self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do – are being discarded as illusions by many, even philosophers, who should think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than succumbing to it.”  (Tallis, p 8)

Obviously for those of us who believe in the Creator who has a plan for the universe which involves humanity, recognizing the uniqueness of human beings among all the animals on earth has been part of our thinking from the beginning.  It may be that we will find common ground to dialogue with scientists as some distance themselves from the extremist claims of those who embrace scientism.  The question, what does it mean to be human?, is a a basic question of theism, philosophy and science.

[See also my blog series Atheism: Luminous or Delusion? which looks at David Bentley Hart’s criticism of the new atheism in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES]

Next:  Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

Free Will and Biology (PDF)

The blog series that began with  Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1)     and included 3 blogs commenting on Jerry Coyne’s USA  TODAY article  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will  is now available as one document as a PDF:  Free Will and Biology (PDF).

Coyne, a respected evolutionary biologist, is also philosophically committed to materialism and atheism.   He makes what for me is a puzzling argument that while there is no such thing as free will or consciousness or self (all illusions, he claims, created by biochemistry and genetics) that somehow a kinder, gentler humanity will emerge when we throw off the illusion of self and self control and  free will.  The argument is puzzling because if in fact as he argues we have no free will and everything we do is simply the end result of millions of years of biochemical evolution, and if in fact no non-material force can make material objects do anything, how will “knowledge” change our behavior?  It is some form of magical gnostic thinking.   It seems to me for Coyne to be consistent, he must acknowledge that we are merely the biochemical products of evolution and therefore cannot change our behavior (humans will be humans) because of genetic determinism and thus no conscious change in human behavior or social behavior is possible no matter whether we rely on science or religion.   Thus his optimism that acknowledging that there is no free will can alter human behavior is a gnostic belief – his own magical thinking which he so despises in theists.   He offers no proof (in fact I don’t think there is any) for his philosophical claims that a world guided by atheistic materialism will be one in which humans treat humans more humanely;  yet he claims to be guided purely by science not by a system of beliefs.    His assumptions and beliefs read into and re-interpret the science he selectively offers with the result being of course that his interpretation of the world proves what he believes.   This doesn’t seem to be the scientific method at all.

A list of my blog series available as PDFs is available at Blog Series Available as PDFs.

Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2)

In the previous blog, Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1), we looked at some surprising discoveries in changing behavior that resulted from studies done on soldiers who had become addicted to heroin, were dried out and returned to civilian life.  Incredibly 95% did not return to heroin addiction whereas in the general population, 90% of addicts who are dried out return to their addiction.

The overcoming of addictions certainly is a concern of any people who also believe in free will.  Slavery to anything is considered wrong.  Efforts to change behavior or to help people gain control over their behaviors have been a concern of medical science for some time.  Evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne recently wrote a USA  TODAY article,  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will, in which he deal with issues of behavioral changes in the form of New Year’s resolutions.

Coyne is a respected evolutionist who has written extensively in defense of the truth of evolution.   I have appreciated some of his writings in this regard and learned from him the strength of the evolutionary evidence.   Where I disagree with Coyne is in his aggressive commitment to atheistic materialism.  For Coyne there is nothing beyond biology, no soul, no free will, and really there can be no self.  Consciousness and conscience are all illusions of biological functions according to Coyne.  I want to quote extensively from his article and offer some comments on them.

While Coyne dismisses free will as an illusion created by chemical and biological functions in cells, he would, I think, welcome the news from the study mentioned in the previous blog – he still recognizes that there are things like good and bad behavior even while denying free will or any religious morality.  Coyne says discussions on free will are still important because they determine how we should treat miscreants and criminals.

But we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the “wrong choice.” And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.  There’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It’s impossible, anyway, …”

So while Coyne denies free will, he does believe that there are things like learned behavior, which can be changed.  Though, according to Coyne, we cannot freely choose to change our behavior, apparently some kind of behavioral conditioning can take place to modify behavior.  Though I’ve not kept up with this issue, it does seem to me that behavioral conditioning is not the theory in vogue in the behavioral sciences these days.

Coyne’s comments though also cause me to wonder what Coyne exactly believes.  For if it is true that there is no free will or no conscience (he has to deny these things because he is completely committed to materialism and thus cannot acknowledge the existence of non-material “forces” that can act on materialistic things), one has to wonder who or what exactly learns the behavior and changes it?  The cells?  The DNA?   The proteins?  The laws of physics?  If there is no conscience, if there is no real self, if there is no real consciousness apart from the cells and their chemical/biological functions, who or what exactly can learn to change behavior?   There would be further questions of why bother since everything is materialistically driven anyway?  Perhaps Coyne believes that cells and DNA are programmed to survive and thus have gained the need for social interactions as part of their survival techniques.   But I would wonder whether any of that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt by science or remains in the realm of Coyne’s beliefs?  James Le Fanu raised such questions about the claims of scientific materialism in his book, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Additionally, I would have to ask whether “learning” is not also an immaterial force that acts upon the material cells.  Cells may learn – change chemical processes, but what then is information?   By Coyne’s thinking one would logically abandon ideas about “learning” and just say the cells become reprogrammed.   For me, this is an inadequate description of what humans are and how our brains operate.

Coyne writes:

So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year‘s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.

In these words of Coyne, I think he overstates the case of what has actually been proven by science and what are merely his beliefs.   Human behavior is shaped by a multitude of factors, many of which we still do not understand, and certainly we don’t understand how all of these factors interrelate with and impact each other in shaping human behavior.  That was obvious in the NPR piece about the heroin addicted GIs in Vietnam.

Genetic determinism has not been proven as the only factor affecting human behavior.  And it is quite possible as in the case of epigenetics, that environmental factors might magnify or mitigate the purely genetic effects.  Whatever our genes may be programmed to do, if the environmental situation is not proper, the genes will not have that exact effect on our behavior.  And the fact that memories are somehow biologically stored in the human brain is no proof at all that free will does not exist, but only shows that that human thought processes take place in the physical brain:  the mind and the brain are linked in some mysterious way.  Coyne has not shown how tiny cells or the proteins of DNA can have a conscious awareness of being part of a greater being (the human) in order to control its behavior.  Nor do we have the understanding of how all the brain cells work together to create “thought.”  The whole process of the human brain is far more complex than Coyne admits in his article, and not fully understood by scientists to this day.

Additionally, our brains are not limited by memories or genetic determinants for human minds have shown the capacity for creativity – for bringing new ideas and products into existence that never before existed,  and for combining information in new ways whose combinations and solutions were at one time were thought impossible,  as has happened in the history of math and physics.  The human mind has shown an ingenious ability to think more and more abstractly through history.   This is not simply the product of learned past experiences.  The neural cells are in fact creating new ideas.  This wouldn’t seem possible based purely on Coyne’s claims.

In the next blog, I will continue to look at the claims of Jerry Coyne.

See my blog series commenting on the writings of James La Fanu,  The Genetic Side of Being Human.

Next:  Free Will and Biology (1)

Blog Series Now available as PDFs

Two recent blog series are now available as PDFs.

The series which began with Science and the Church: Are the Facts in? which explored ideas regarding the theory of evolution and the church is now available as a PDF at  The Mystery of Ourselves (PDF).     This series focuses on the comments of Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011, and on the claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

The other blog series now available as a PDF considered some of the changes taking place in American law that is causing civil authorities to hold criminally accountable bishops in hierarchical church organizations who fail to do due diligence in pursuing allegations of clergy sexual misconduct against their diocesan clergy.  That series began with the blog State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priests Misdeeds.  No longer will states allow bishops to hide behind some “ministerial exclusion” principle if they fail to do due diligence in investigating allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.   That series is available as a PDF at The State and the Church and Sexual Abuse (PDF).

You can view a list of other blog series available as PDFs at Blog Series Available as PDFs

The Mystery of Ourselves: A conclusion

This is the 7th and final blog in this series which began with the blog  Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?.   In this series we considered ideas about truth, evolution and the Church.  The blog preceding this one is Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II).     We looked at the works of two authors commenting especially on evolution.   First,  Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Second we considered the claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Creation of Adam

While some believers are very troubled by the science of evolution, obviously others are not.  A number of evolutionary scientists are theists and many committed Christians accept the claims of evolutionary science.  Evolution is a threat to those who insist on reading Genesis absolutely literal and as if Genesis was written as a modern science textbook.

Many Christians are not limited by literalism and read Genesis as speaking more about what it means to be human than as a history of the first human being.  Genesis is about us; it is our story and explains our experience of the material world, including such issues as mortality.   Genesis is doctrine in the guise of narrative as St. Gregory of Nyssa said.  It can be read as holy story one which reveals the meaning of being human: a meaning which is found in and determined by our Creator.  It is a narrative that connects mortal materialistic creation to divinity and eternity.

Le Fanu believes that humans are a most wondrous creature –  not that all of creation or all other creatures are not wondrous.   Humans however have been endowed by God with certain characteristics which give them a special role in creation, a role with the responsibility of stewardship to God in caring for the planet and the creatures with whom we share this earth.  Le Fanu contrasts other creatures with us humans:

“We can imagine things to be different from how they are, and plan for our futures. They cannot. We know our beginnings and our end, and recognising the fact of our mortality, are impelled to seek explanations for our brief sojourn on earth. They do not. We inhabit the spiritual domain centred on the self, the soul, the ‘I’, with its several distinct interconnected parts which, being non-material, and thus not constrained by the material laws governing the workings of the brain, is free to choose one thought over another or one course of action over another. And that inextricable connection between the non-material self and freedom is the defining feature of man’s exceptionality, for we, unlike our primate cousins, are free to forge our own destinies to become that distinct, unique person responsible for our actions of which all human societies are composed, and from which virtually everything we value flows.”  (Kindle Loc. 4241-47)

Science, biology, evolution are indeed concerned with the material nature of humans.  We are material beings, and to this extent we Christians too are materialists.  So is God who becomes incarnate as a man in order to unite all humans to Himself.  We are not only material, we are created in the Maker’s image and likeness.  We have the breathe/spirit of God enlivening us.  We have been endowed by our Creator with intelligence, creativity and procreative abilities which allow us to work together with God as co-creators of the present and the future.  We are able to be aware of things greater than our limited self.  We have a conscience awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.  We can imagine a future.  We understand that death is a limitation placed upon us.  We believe in God’s power to overcome death.  We can aspire to things of God and of eternity, far beyond the limits of material creation.  God is able to inspire in us the knowledge of and desire for the divine life.

For a wonderful visual presentation and commentary on the wonders of human development from conception see  Alexander Tsiaras: Conception to Birth.

For a link to this blog series as one PDF go to Blog Series (PDF).

Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II)

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain.  We are now considering some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu (Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves) that deal with the human brain and the ways in which scientific materialism in and of themselves cannot account for what it means to be human and how the brain in fact works.

Le Fanu postulates that in fact thoughts are non-material and yet have physical effects.   This goes against the grain of those scientists who are committed to atheistic materialism and who deny that the non-material can have any effect on the world and thus must deny free will which is a non-material force.

“Science holds that nothing can happen that is not governed by the natural laws of material causation. Thoughts are non-material, therefore by definition they can’t cause anything to happen. Hence, my supposition that I am free to choose one course of action over another must be an illusion generated by the physical activity of the brain to create the impression that it is my non-material ‘self, it is ‘I’, who is making the decision.”   (Kindle  Loc. 3654-57)

John 15:16

Some scientists do claim that there is no such thing as free will since all thoughts and emotions are the direct result of chemical processes in the human brain or other organs.   Le Fanu does not accept this assertion and upholds a notion that thinking is real, cannot be completely explained by chemical/electrical impulses in the brain and that these non-material thoughts do in fact effect not only ourselves but the rest of the world as well.

“But to accept the supposition that non-material thoughts (the desire to cross the road) can have physical effects (causing the legs to move) would be to introduce into our understanding of the natural world some non-material force that stands outside, and is not governed by, the principles of lawful material causation. This dilemma can be resolved only in materialist terms by supposing that the decision (for example) when to cross the road is not freely taken, but is determined by the electrical activity of our brain.”   (Kindle Loc. 3014-17)

Such determinism has been part of human thinking for centuries.  It is not the thinking in Orthodox tradition however which does accept the notion of free will.  Some Christians, especially Calvinists, completely believe in predestination – God determines everything in the universe.  Atheistic scientists reject God and accept notions of total determinism –  human thought is merely the product of electrical impulses running through the brain cells and thus follows the materialistic law of cause and effect.   Thinking is thus totally materialistically caused and thus there is no such thing as free will.  Orthodoxy has traditionally rejected such determinism and has accepted the notion that we do have the ability to make choices, for good and for ill.  There really is a thing called the “self” and the self makes real choices which shape the future.  [It is interesting to note that Einstein was a determinist as well and this is why he had such great problems with quantum mechanics which allow for uncertainty and indeterminism.]

Le Fanu says that despite the denial of a few prominent scientists the evidence shows that non-material processes (thinking for example) do have an effect in the world.   Everything does not follow a perfect cause and effect pattern set off by random events.   Rather, humans are able to make choices and influence their future.   A purely materialistically based approach to humanity does not take into full account what it is to be human.  Le Fanu says there is an existing mystery involving humanity, and conscious awareness and thought is part of that mystery and is as real as any physical property.

“Collectively the findings of these studies strongly support the view that the subjective nature of mental processes (e.g. thoughts, feelings, beliefs) significantly influence the various levels of brain functioning. Beliefs and expectations can markedly modulate neurophysiological and neurochemical activity in brain regions involved in perception, movement, pain and various aspects of emotional process.”   (Kindle  Loc. 3715-18)  

The non-material, so scientific studies have shown, thus exists and is able to influence the material world.  This is a basic assumption of believers and Le Fanu thinks the scientific evidence proves the point.  Secular scientists reduce being human to material impulses that ultimately have no true meaning.   We simply do what our bodies’ chemistry and electronic impulses tell us to do.  While that view is held by some scientists it is not the thinking of most theistic Christians who accept free will.

“‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’”  (Kindle Loc. 3027-28)

While the above sentence might appear to be true to those who cannot accept the role of a Creator God, for believers there is something backwards in the thinking.  “I” am not created by cellular electrical impulses, rather the behavior of the nerve cells and molecules is “me” working out my will through the cells and electrical impulses.  “I” am willing my material body to behave in a certain way.   The “self” is inseparably linked to its material brain.  Both brain and mind emerge together and in their interconnectivity the self is born.   We do not have in this world a “self” apart from our corporeal existence.  The self which is non-material is based in the very material nature of the brain and the non-material self effects the brain, allowing us to do things, seeing for example.  The eye works in a most mysterious way to allow us to see colors.

 “… yet the particles of light impacting on the retina are colourless, just as the waves of sound impacting on the eardrum are silent, and scent molecules have no smell. They are all invisible, weightless, subatomic particles of matter travelling through space. It is the brain that impresses the colours, sounds and smells upon them. ‘For the [light] rays, to speak properly, are not coloured,’ wrote the great Isaac Newton.”  (Kindle Loc. 3358-61)     

The brain is interpreting the impulses the body receives.  The brain which mysteriously and even organically is linked with the self imposes meaning on the material and immaterial worlds.

“The first mystery is how the fundamentally similar neuronal circuits in Rachel Carson’s brain conjure from the barrage of colourless photons and soundless pressure waves impinging on her senses that vividly unique and unified sensation of that ‘wild night all around us’…”  (Kindle Loc. 3783-85)

Thus our brains, quite material in their existence open up to us to perceive, remember and organize both the physical and non-materials experiences we have in the world.  Le Fanu sees this as part of the great mystery which is ourselves.  We discover through science that we are not merely physical beings, but have a true non-material dimension which introduces into our study of human beings notions of the self, the soul, the mind, the heart.

Next:  The Mystery of Ourselves: A conclusion