Here’s a somewhat convoluted article about the current status of scientific thought regarding our free will – or lack thereof .
Are we able to make choices regarding our behavior, or are we really just along for the ride of whatever our genomes, hormones, and other sundry physiological qualities decide is the best course of action? Some scientists are tilting towards the idea that we don’t really have any free will. We do what we do because of everything that has happened before in our lives and before we were even born. We truly are cogs in a vast biological machine.
The article brings up some interesting points, however.
Note that the verbiage of the article definitely paints the reality of “evil”, even using that term in describing Hitler and his actions. However if we’re all preprogrammed, can anything be truly said to be evil? At best, wouldn’t we just call it unfortunate, or unpleasant, or not preferable? Evil indicates a sense of moral agency and permanency that the biological argument for determinism pretty much attempts (or inevitably winds up trying) to castrate. Evil is one end of a spectrum, the other end of which is ‘good’. If what we do can’t really be honestly described as evil, then we can’t really call anything that we do well or correctly or right, good?
The second idea here is that there is the recognition that people who believe they are helpless to affect their actions tend to act less desirably – as defined from the communal perspective. They’re less compassionate, less honest, less caring. In other words, when there’s no expectation that they can overcome their evil impulses, they give in to them more frequently. The result is a person who is more anti-social, to use the term the article & study use. Good and evil become redefined simply as what is best or not best for the majority. A person who doesn’t act in the best interests of the collective is not bad or evil or troubled or dangerous, they are anti-social. Interesting.
What are we to do with these people? Can we punish them? It’s clear that people who understand and accept deterministic theories are less inclined to feel as though these people should be judged or punished. They sympathize with them because they realize that they themselves could just as easily find themselves in the other person’s shoes – if not for a slightly different set of biological and social variables in their background.
This is interesting, because it oddly enough sort of matches the Biblical emphasis on mercy. Granted, it does this by gutting the Biblical concepts of good and evil and judgment – which is problematic (as the scientists involve readily grant – though for different reasons than the theologian). But the net result is a sort of perverse empathy – not with the best in another person necessarily, but with the worst. The Bible calls for us to consider those around us, to love them even as we love ourselves. Not the worst in others, but in other people as creations of the same heavenly Father. Creations who may be wounded or damaged or wronged and in need of love and the promise of recreation found in the life and death of Jesus the Christ.
The disturbing thing that this article raises without knowing it though, is the idea that some people will understand how things ‘really’ work, and they will then determine what the masses can or can’t handle. We don’t want the masses becoming more anti-social, so we have to carefully filter what we tell them and how we tell it to them. What this does though is create another class of people – those who know the truth, who have that knowledge affecting them in anti-social ways, but who deem themselves as the best determiners of what others ought to know. People who by their own studies and observations would seem to be less concerned about other people become the ones to whom the lives of other people become entrusted. They will guide the policies and decisions at the highest levels of education and politics and social policy – while they are the ones who also will be the least desirable to make such decisions, based on their anti-social tendencies as caused by their knowledge of our deterministic helplessness.
That makes me a bit nervous. How about you?
Biblically, we have a significant variation on this. We are told that we are broken and that we cannot fix ourselves. That aspect of us is very much determined. We have no ability to modify this in any way. It’s built into us from conception. This explanation of reality explains why we almost universally understand concepts of good and evil, and recognize that we ourselves ought to be better, yet we are never able to clear the bar we set for ourselves. We continue to hold out this expectation of how we ought to be, and we never achieve it. We are broken creatures with a dim awareness that reality as we know it and experience it is not how things were supposed to be, that we ourselves are not as we were intended to be.
Into this deterministic mix is thrown the monkey wrench of the incarnate Son of God. Our determinism is not in isolation. There is a power beyond us and greater than us who created the original ‘us’ – and created us good. While our ancestors screwed that creation pretty good, their messing up of creation did not – could not – affect the Creator. The Creator remains untainted by our brokenness, and is in the unique position to offer us a solution, to throw us a rescue line, to do what we cannot do ourselves – make us whole and complete and good once again.
We’d be pretty hopeless if this Creator was not inclined to do so, or was so impersonal as to notice. But we’re told in Scripture that the personal God who created us as personal beings remains personally involved in creation, and has indeed crafted a rescue strategy. That strategy is God Himself coming into creation as part of creation – the Son of God coming into the world as a man. Through this synthesis of the divine and the human, through this merging of Creator and creation in a unique way, a plan is set in motion to redeem creation. The ‘new man’ in the divine, the human hybrid known as Jesus of Nazareth does what the first man Adam could not – He remains obedient and good. Through that human obedience combined with his divine identity, a restoration of creation is set in motion. We are offered through faith worked by the Spirit of God who first moved over the primal nothingness, and through this acceptance and recognition of what God has done, is doing, and will do, our own recreation begins.
As moral but sinful, broken creatures we have the limited ability to resist evil in specific instances. As redeemed creatures through faith in Jesus Christ, we transcend that struggle in some ways. We still seek to resist evil, and we still fail. But we profess that we are now something that we weren’t before. Rescued. The process of restoration is beginning within us. We see our choices more clearly, and in gratitude for the rescue already underway, we strive with renewed and reinforced strength to live like rescued people.
Finally, the hypothetical situation posed by this article reveals precisely what we are and aren’t able to do. We aren’t able to know the future. We aren’t able to know for certain what will happen. What is morally determined in terms of our brokenness does not naturally result in deterministic behavior. We proclaim that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, and that salvation and rescue can come at the least likely moment and in the most improbable way. So we aren’t able to write off someone as being unsave-able, or unworthy of rescue. If we are about our business as Christians of loving our neighbors as ourselves (very social behavior, I’m sure, by scientific standards), then we are part of the influencing of our neighbor. We become part of the equation that could alter that person’s future in ways we never know – even to the point of working with the Holy Spirit to alter that person’s eternal future. Our roles become not those of enforcers and preventers, but encouragers and advocates. By constantly seeking to see the image of God in our fellow man, no matter how broken or battered, God may work through us in ways we never see, understand, or recognize to change the life of that other person.
As Christians we are fundamentally concerned not with controlling others, but freeing them. This is something that efforts to control legislation often fail to recognize. With God, all things are possible. With only man – even the best and most well-intentioned of mankind – we are constantly faced with our own limitations, and our efforts are quickly reduced to controlling and mitigating.