Note:  The question is quite long, including some quotes from scientific journals.  I have moved much of these quotes to after my answer so that the reader will not get distracted by too long a question.


I would love some help in one area, because I feel like I don’t know enough to tackle the issue all by myself. If you are willing to put in some time, it would be most appreciated. Recently, I have done some more research into one area related to free will. It has to do with psychopathy/"involuntary" criminal behavior. Please check out the following (go to the bottom to see the evidence and web sites questioner is referring to) 

The first link leaves more room for the fact that it’s not all set in stone you can tell by the language used. However, certain things do (*somewhat*) worry me personally." The second link is somewhat more accepting of the fact that it’s not all determined. They claim that different behaviors are associated with different brain structures makes me think about causation. I believe in free will, and I know about neuroplasticity. Therefore, unless it was genetic (i.e., born that way), the change must have occurred through their own behavior which influenced brain development. Do you agree with me when I claim that pretty much all of these are reducible to neuroplasticity? Important question: Why do you believe those children had bad brains to begin with? Is it all due to genes? Is it due to bad parenting? Something in their diet or anything else that affected brain development? Did those people simply "give in" without putting up a fight, to their genes? Only the ones that seem to be genetic, like psychopathy TRULY worry me. What is YOUR opinion on those issues? They seem to be in a different category than the others.


You ask a very good question. I believe that neoroscience and the related genetics is one major cutting-edge area for Christian apologetics. I foresee an ever-growing number of attacks on basic Christian theology coming from the discoveries of neuroscientists. I do not mean to be alarmist. I am convinced that the Christian world view will be consistent with the findings of neuroscience. The deterministic presupposition is the thing determining many of the theories current in neuroscience. Believers need to be prepared to give a different interpretation to the results of neuroscience. There is a presentation on this topic at the web site, titled, Neuroscience: Room for the Soul? It is in the power point section of the site.

Surely any thinking person, aware of current research, must ponder how all these discoveries fit with Christian theology and our understanding of God.

My answer will be multifaceted, as the question is complex. First of all, one thing you will notice immediately is that, of all the sciences, neuroscience is more dominated by deterministic philosophy than any other area. I am not so bold as to say that determinism is completely out in left field and that nothing is determined by genetics–not at all! However, when you read such work, you should bear in mind that many neuroscients (actually, the majority, from my experience) have a deterministic agenda/world view underlying their entire approach to devising experiments and interpreting their results. Such bias should be born in mind. However, bias does not create data and surely these neuroscientists are on to something.

It seems quite unrealistic to not accept that genetics plays a significant role in brain function and in behavior. Let me give my generic response first, followed by a more nuanced answer to the specifics. I believe that all of us are born with one or more sins which we are more tempted toward than others. Some of us have addiction as our weak point. Others have anger and even violence as the area we are genetically predisposed toward. Still others have a higher sexual drive and are more tempted in this area. The Bible does not tell us that we are all identical and that we all have exactly equal temptations in every area. What Christianity says is that we have free will and that we are therefore responsible for our actions. I do not doubt for a moment that some are genetically more likely to struggle with anger or homosexuality or laziness or addiction.

The question is not whether we are more predisposed to one sin than another. The question is whether we will take responsibility for our sin and do our very best to control the evil desires which wage war in us. The one who is more genetically predisposed toward violence does not get a free ride on Judgment Day, any more than the one predisposed toward pornography. We are personally responsible for what we do with what is given us. The Bible presents the picture that we are responsible for what God has given us. If we have more talents/gifts, he expects more from us. If we have less given, less will be expected. This principle is found in the parable of the talents (Matthew) and the mihahs (Luke). In the end, I believe that God is loving and just. He will not arbitrarily choose to help one and harm another. God’s justice is perfect, at least as I understand it. God understands what sins we are tempted with, but he also expects us to strive to "Be holy as I am holy." The thing which concerns me is if people use genetics as an excuse to sin. Those who are genetically predisposed toward addiction must, necessarily choose not to become addicted. God judges the heart and he knows our sinful nature. I choose to trust in his wisdom, love and justice.

Neuroscience will present us with difficult examples. What about one genetically predisposed toward schizophrenia or toward being a sociopath. I will have to admit that, despite my somewhat simplistic statement above (one which I completely believe in, but one which is somewhat simplistic), there are difficult questions. If God allowed a person to be born with a genetic predisposition toward schizophrenia or bipolarity, does he then give such a person more grace? My answer is to repeat what I said above. I trust God’s wisdom, love and mercy to do what is "right" in such circumstances. What about the profoundly retarded? Are they then innocent and not accountable for their "sins?" My answer is surely yes. God does not judge little babies. Neither does he judge us for things we are physiologically and intellectually unable to do. Bottom line, we will not be able to give a hard and fast answer to every possible question. Are some people genetically predisposed toward autism? As far as I know, this has not been proved yet, but I trust God’s providene, mercy and love on these people as well.

Now, what about the brain data? Are the abnormalities found in the brains of the dispassionate or the violent the cause of the behavior or the result of the behavior? Is it genetics or neurplasticity? I assume that the answer is both. There is plenty of evidence from both directions. I am not the expert in any of these areas. I believe that, in general, we should assume that the majority of the ones doing this research are predisposed to find a physiological cause for the behavior. Such people are looking to blame nature rather than "sin" to explain the personality disorders. With some notable exceptions, there is a strong deterministic presupposition going on here. I know this because I have heard from and read articles by such people.

Having said that, I assume that there will be a good amount of truth in their discoveries. Does alcoholism run in families because of genetics (nature) or because of upbringing (nurture). The common sense answer is yes! both! Does this prove that free will is not real? No. Not at all. Do not listen to the determinists who want to convince you otherwise. Are there people born with such a strong genetic predisposition so as to make them not accountable before God for certain behaviors? I say perhaps yes. However, we are not God. Our job is to do our best to help these people and also trust in the justice, wisdom and love of our Creator.

In summary, there are two questions to be answered, and we need to keep these two separated. One is the question of causation for people to be predisposed toward certain sinful behaviors (or toward centain good behaviors for that matter). I assume that with more research, more examples of genetic causes for various behaviors will be found. Sin also has its consequences, and I assume that brain function is significantly affected by traumatic events. There is plenty of evidence for this. This, however, is not the Christian question. The Christian question is whether we are responsible for what we do with what we were given. The answer is that for the vast majority of us, yes, God will hold us accountable for having self-control and for living a holy life. Fortunately, the blood of Jesus makes up for those of us who fall short (all of us!), but the blood of Jesus was never intended to make up for a hardened heart which will not repent and submit to God’s will. By faith, I trust the wisdom, justice and mercy of the God of the Bible. This is the bottom line for me.

John Oakes, PhD


Rest of the question:

(EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS IS RELATED TO THIS ONE TOPIC —- one part comes from Wikipedia and its reference, and the other is from a meeting held on predictive criminal behavior in children, etc., except that there are two articles on it): I wanted to know, what are your thoughts on these findings ( + that suggest that psychopathy may be genetic and affected by abnormal brain behavior? In the study that the Wikipedia article (Causes section) references, it says the following: -"One twin study suggests that psychopathy has a strong genetic component. The study demonstrates that children with anti-social behavior can be classified into two groups: those who were also callous acquired their behavior by genetic influences, and those who were not callous acquired it from their environment." Here is what the scientific literature says ( "Background: Individuals with early warning signs of life-long psychopathy, callous-unemotional traits (CU) and high levels of antisocial behaviour (AB) can be identified in childhood. We report here the first twin study of high levels of psychopathic tendencies in young children. Methods: At the end of the first school year, teachers provided ratings of CU and AB for 3687 twin pairs from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). For the analyses of extreme CU, we selected same-sex twin pairs where at least one twin scored 1.3 or more standard deviations above the mean on the CU scale (612 probands, 459 twin pairs). For the analysis of extreme AB, we selected same-sex twin pairs where at least one twin scored 1.3 or more standard deviations above the mean on AB scale (444 probands, 364 twin pairs). Furthermore, the extreme AB sample was divided into those who were also extreme on CU (children with psychopathic tendencies; 234 probands, 187 twin pairs) and those who did not score in the extreme for CU (children without psychopathic tendencies; 210 probands, 177 twin pairs). Results: DeFries-Fulker extremes analysis indicated that exhibiting high levels of CU is under strong genetic influence. Furthermore , separating children with AB into those with high and low levels of CU showed striking results: AB in children with high levels of CU is under extremely strong genetic influence and no influence of shared environment, whereas AB in children with low levels of CU shows moderate genetic and shared environmental influence. Conclusions: The remarkably high heritability for CU, and for AB children with CU, suggests that molecular genetic research on antisocial behaviour should focus on the CU core of psychopathy. Our findings also raise questions for public policy on interventions for antisocial behaviour." There are also several brain abnormalities (Causes and Pathophysiology sections): -"The amygdala is crucial for stimulus-reinforcement learning and responding to emotional expressions, particularly fearful expressions that, as reinforcers, are important initiators of stimulus-reinforcement learning. Moreover, the amygdala is involved in the formation of both stimulus-punishment and stimulus-reward associations. Individuals with psychopathy show impairment in stimulus-reinforcement learning (whether punishment or reward based) and responding to fearful and sad expressions. It is argued that this impairment drives much of the syndrome of psychopathy." -"People scoring e25 in the Psychopathy Checklist Revised, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity in their uncinate fasciculus – white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. The more extreme the psychopathy, the greater the abnormality." -"Recent studies have triggered theories on determining whether there is a biological relationship between the brain and psychopathy. One theory suggests that psychopathy is associated with both the amygdala, which is associated with emotional reactions and emotion learning, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with impulse control, decision-making, emotional learning and behavioral adaptation. Some studies have shown there is less "gray matter" in these areas in psychopaths than in non-psychopaths." -"There is DT-MRI evidence of breakdowns in the white matter connections between these two important areas in a small British study of nine criminal psychopaths. This evidence suggests that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors." -"A 2008 review found various abnormalities (based on group differences from average) reported in the literature, centred on a prefrontal-temporo-limbic circuit – regions that are involved in emotional and learning processes, as well as many other processes. However, the authors report that the people classed as "psychopathic" cannot in fact be seen as a homogeneous group (i.e. as all having the same characteristics), and that the associations between structural changes and psychopathic characteristics do not enable causal conclusions to be drawn. They conclude that psychopathic characteristics involve multifactorial processes including neurobiological, genetic, epidemiological, and sociobiographical (the person’s life in society) factors." Now, the genetic component, I don’t know what to say about that, since they claim that those children didn’t respond to environment inputs at all and it was almost all genetic. It could be that those people simply gave in to their genes instead of being "forced". In the same Wikipedia article, it is said that it is not good to try to classify children as psychopaths until they are adults. I doubt that, like the article said ("AB in children with high levels of CU is under extremely strong genetic influence and no influence of shared environment"), there is absolutely NOTHING that the environment and personal behavior can do to change that. Second, the brain part seems more easy. We all know about neuroplasticity, and how easily the brain changes and constantly forming new connections, etc. We know that musicians, for example, have more grey matter in certain regions as opposed to those who aren’t musicians. The brain is like a muscle, the more you exercise it (behave a certain way), the more it changes according to your inputs. So that’s fine. It doesn’t matter if the brain functions "abnormally", as long as it’s not *impaired*. Abnormal simple means out of the ordinary. The problem is, what if, instead, it’s genetic, and your amygdala is that way from the start, so that you can’t feel emotions, thus you have an inability to feel empathy for others? Thus, it is *impaired* instead of merely abnormal due to your own behavior? What is your opinion on these findings? Does this suggest that psychopaths have less free will than normal people due to brain abnormalities? Especially if they are born that way, and not because of them causing their brain to change that way through their behavior? I assume this issue is caused by the very genetic problems mentioned in the first study I shared at the very top, regarding the twin study? Robert Hare ( believes psychopaths are born that way, which I assume he refers to genetics. Two related article to this (the two articles are also themselves related to one another, one has more detail, the other less), *supposedly* pointing to being able to "predicting criminality in infants". Here: + science-and-criminality.ars Important quotes (you don’t need to read the entire articles, I’ll share what’s somewhat relevant): -"One was a particular abnormality affecting the brain’s "emotional centre", the lim
bic system. It showed up in six month-old babies who as adults committed more crimes and displayed more signs of psychopathy and anti-social behaviour than unaffected individuals. " -"Three-year-olds with a poorly functioning amygdala, a key part of the limbic system, were also more likely to commit crime 20 years later, said Dr Raine, a former Home Office scientist now at the University of Pennsylvania in the US." -"Dr Raine is now conducting three trials to see if Omega 3 supplements can improve the behaviour of aggressive children. Omega 3 is a fatty acid that helps to build brain cells. Previous studies have shown that giving it to prison inmates reduces serious offending by between 34% and 36%." [All above quotes from the first link] [Second link:] -"Several areas of the brain have been shown to be implicated with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), commonly known as psychopathy or sociopathy. The frontal cortex is the large part of your brain that is responsible for higher reasoning and behavioral traits, and is one of the areas that has been looked at. It’s smaller than normal in individuals with ASPD. Although there is a difference in crime rates between men and women, 77 percent of that difference goes away once you control for frontal cortex volume." -"Dysfunction or abnormalities in other brain regions have also been associated with higher rates of crime and ASPD. The septum pellucidum is a region of brain tissue that separates the brain’s fluid-filled spaces, called ventricles. During fetal development, there is an opening inside this tissue that usually closes up within the first few months after birth. Individuals for whom this doesn’t happen have higher rates of arrest and conviction, and score higher for ASPD." -"A study comparing ASPD and normal brains found deformations and a significant reduction in volume in the ASPD cohort. These were centered on the basolateral nucleus, which is responsible for fear conditioning. This suggests that one possible source of differences (or one of several interweaving mechanisms) is that ASPD-affected individuals don’t form the same sort of response to fear as normal people." -"One study that showed this assessed autonomic fear conditioning in 3-year-olds (this is done with a skin conductance test, as you can’t put 3-year-olds in MRI machines and expect good results), and then followed up with the subjects 20 years later. Out of 1795 children assessed at age 3, the study was able to follow up with 411. One hundred thirty-seven of these 23-year-olds had criminal records; the remaining 274 had not been in trouble with the law. Looking at their data from 20 years ago, the criminal offenders all showed much poorer fear conditioning." -"Several other brain abnormalities are linked to other crimes. Spouse abusers tend to show strong limbic and weak frontal activation when presented with aggressive word stimuli, suggesting a hyper-responsiveness to mild provocatory stimulus. White collar criminals have been shown to have increased cortical thickness in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, the precentral gyrus, and the temporal-parietal junction, compared to age-matched controls.




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