Editor’s note: This recent Q & A is of sufficient interest that we have turned it into an article. See below.
I recently read an interview with atheist psychologist Steven Pinker about one of his books that he wrote. It was on a website (unfortunately,I can’t recall it). (editor: http://bigthink.com/ideas/4649) The topic of concern is the apparent biological basis for behavior and the impact this has on the traditional understanding of the Free Will Doctrine. As you have probably guessed, the conclusion was that Free Will is either partly or completely an illusion. The main support for Pinker’s hypothesis is that since Darwinian evolution “molded” behaviors into us, we really don’t have Free Will. Many of atheism’s foot soldiers advance this argument as well. How do we respond? Did evolution “mold” certain behaviors into us? If so, what impact does this have on the traditional Free Will Doctrine? If our behavior (or atleast some of it) is involuntary, do we really have Free Will? How do we answer atheists that advance this argument? I would appreciate anything you can give me.
This is a great question. It is at the forefront of where those of us who defend the Christian faith need to be working, as atheists and determinists will really push this point. The field of neuroscience is pretty much “owned” by hard core determinists and Christians should not concede this territory. When determinists/materialists claim that science proves there is no free will, they are pushing into the area of philosophy or religion, about which they generally know little about, yet they try to speak as experts in this field. The fact is that their point here is extremely weak, but it is the job of believers to call them out on this argument. I will show below why their arguments are truly weak.
One thing you could do is ask the atheist/determinist if they believe in free will. They will probably say no. It is an epiphenomenon or something like that. Then you could ask them if this belief is determined by chemicals and evolution or if they really, actually “believe” that free will is not real. If they say they actually “believe” that there is no free will, they have committed a logical error known as circular reasoning. If we have no free will, then how can we “know” anything? How can we decide? How can we believe? By their own philosophy, such a statement is nonsense. Simply in proposing and attempting to answer whether we have free will, we discover that we have free will. The alternative is to admit that the question does not even make sense.
I believe that as believers we should be prepared to concede that we, as humans, are affected/influenced by our genetics. Some of us are genetically more likely to become alcoholics. Some of us, by our genetic make-up are more likely to be violent or homosexuals (or heterosexuals, for that matter), or gamblers. Some of us are genetically predisposed to being shy or agressive or arrogant. Some of us are genetically predisposed toward stealing and murdering and raping. As a scientist and a Christian, I do not deny for a moment that all of us are born with particular tendencies, and that the cause of this is, at least in part, genetic.
The question is this: does this prove that there is no free will? Absolutely not. What is free will? Is it neurons firing and chemicals moving around? No, it is not. It is somethign we have inherently, given to us by God. The problem is that the determinists assume that only physical things like chemicals and electrical signals are real. No wonder they conclude that there is no free will. If you assume something does not exist (non-physical, ie spiritual reality), and then use that assumption to prove that free will (a non-physical reality) does not exist, then you have proved absolutely nothing. Science can no more prove that free will does not exist than it can prove that God does not exist or that miracles do not happen, that humans do not have consciousness or that there is no moral truth. The lack of existence of such things is “proved” by science only by assuming that they do not exist.
Another point needs to be made here. The atheist/determinist is assuming that, if we can prove a genetic “cause” for behavior, then this would disprove the idea of free will. I believe that this, again, is lazy thinking. Let us say that a person is genetically predisposed for alcoholism. Will we conclude that he will inevitably become an alcoholic? The answer, of course, is no. Will the one who is genetically predisposed toward homosexuality or violence or greed automatically become homosexual, violent or greedy? The answer, again is no, because we make choices. We have free will. From a Christian perspective, it can be difficult to accept that one can be genetically predisposed toward anger, violence or homosexuality, given that these things are sin. Does this negate free will? Not at all. We all have a sinful nature. I am sure that scientists will eventually show that we are all genetically predisposed toward one “sin” or another. The question is not what we are tempted with, but what we do about our temptations. One person is more tempted to be withdrawn and selfish. Another is genetically more predisposed to sexual sin or to violence. No matter what our temptation is, we are given a choice and an ability to deal with that sin. This is what the Bible teaches. It is also what life experience teaches us. Our genes may cause us to be tempted in one particular way, but “God has given us a spirit of power, love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
Imagine a world in which the atheist/naturalist philosophy rules. In this world, people who have a gene tending toward unusual levels of violence will not be jailed for murder because it is not their “fault.” Those with the gene for lying or the gene for lust/rape will also be off the hook. (by the way, I am oversimplifying… There is probably no single gene for lying or lust. Probably these traits/temptations are the result of multiple genetic factors) The greedy Wall Street scam artist? “My genes made me do it.” How can we blame people for doing what they were naturally predisposed to do? I guarantee it that the atheists believe in free will, even if they say that they do not. The get very upset at you, for example, for “pushing” your religion, for standing up against drunkenness, adultery and other sins. Why are they so upset? You have the genetic predisposition to be religious. It is not your fault. It is predetermined by your genes. How can atheists complain about genocide, given that some people are genetically predisposed, both to have an extreme controlling personality and toward violent behavior.
Sure, we as Christians can concede that there is a biological basis for behavior. Some of our behaviors are so genetically ingrained that we are not at fault for these behaviors. It is not a sin to eat or to feel certain emotions or to run when we are chased. Human instinct for certain behaviors generally cannot be ignored. However, there is no genetic imperative to commit sins. We might be genetically predisposed toward a more choleric or sanguine personality, but God gives us the free will to choose what to do with these impulses and the ability to not be controlled by these inherent tendencies. As the highest of God’s creation, we have self-consciousness. We have free will, and we are accountable before God for our decisions. On Judgment Day, I do not intend to make excuses to God for my lust, pride, anger and so forth. “Sorry, ,my genes made me do it” will not cut it before God. The fact that I am biologically predisposed to one immoral behavior or not is no excuse before God.
About evolution “molding” us. Again, I do not deny that our behaviors are molded, to some extent, by evolution. Our amygdala (an area in our brain controlling the fight or flight response) tells us what to do when we see a dark, shadowy shape on our periphery. I am not sure that evolution produced this, but I am prepared to admit that it may have played a role in creating certain fears, a desire for certain foods and even a sexual desire. Having said that, I believe that what we are as human beings is not merely produced by random evolutionary rolls of the dice. I believe that God molded us as well. I cannot prove this by any single experiment which can be done in the scientific laboratory, but I believe that God formed us. He may have used evolution as part of the mechanism by which he formed us, but I am convinced that this is only part of the story. God created the evolutionary process, but he also directed that process. Again, I cannot prove this by scientific experiment, but neither can the determinist disprove it by experiment. I believe this is true, because of the unimaginable unlikelihood of thinking, self-conscious, moral beings arriving by pure chance collisions between molecules. I also believe it is true for other reasons. I believe that there is a spiritual element to reality, which is demonstrated by the miracles of Jesus and by his rising from the dead. But that takes me in another direction.