One wonders if high-profile neuroscientist David Eagleman is aware that he’s expressing such a historically Protestant understanding of the brain. At this point, someone has to have mentioned The Bondage of the Will to him, right?! He’s essentially providing the biological evidence to support Martin Luther’s inspired polemic, extending the notion of the “inheritance of sin” to the gene-level. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I fully understand if you glaze over when we post this neuroscience stuff – some of it can be pretty convoluted. But if you only read one article on the subject, make it Eagleman’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Brain on Trial.” The jury is still very much out (!) when it comes to his recommendations for our judicial system, but his understanding of the compassion that automatically flows from an acceptance profound limits of willpower is straight out of Grace in Practice. Sure, some of his case studies are uncomfortably extreme – pedophilia and school shootings, for example – but nothing that those of us that take the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 7 seriously will have trouble integrating.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: we don’t go on and on about the bondage of the will because we’re arbitrarily in love with the Reformation or with Augustine, we do so because the good news of the Gospel hinges on it. Any form of Christianity that resists the biblical (and empirical) understanding of the “boundness” of our decision-making won’t ultimately have much to say to human beings. Not sufferers at least. Or addicts. Or artists. Or little kids. Or, yes, Christians. I’m serious.
After you finish the article, listen to Paul Walker’s brilliant recent sermon on the same subject, “I Do Not Do What I Want To Do,” where he lays the theological implications bare in about as powerful and touching a way as you’re likely to hear:
The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.
The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart. The more we learn, the more the seemingly simple concept of blameworthiness becomes complicated, and the more the foundations of our legal system are strained.
Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It’s a charitable idea, but demonstrably wrong. People’s brains are vastly different.
And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history.
When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.
The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic.
The existence of free will in human behavior is the subject of an ancient debate. Arguments in support of free will are typically based on direct subjective experience (“I feel like I made the decision to lift my finger just now”). But evaluating free will requires some nuance beyond our immediate intuitions.
As with Tourette’s sufferers, split-brain patients, and those with choreic movements, Kenneth’s case illustrates that high-level behaviors can take place in the absence of free will. Like your heartbeat, breathing, blinking, and swallowing, even your mental machinery can run on autopilot. The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether some little bit of you is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology.
This has always been the sticking point for philosophers and scientists alike. After all, there is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.” In modern science, it is difficult to find the gap into which to slip free will—the uncaused causer—because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.
Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.
What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments. No amount of threatening will chase away depression, but a little pill called fluoxetine often does the trick.
If it seems difficult to empathize with people who have poor impulse control, just think of all the things you succumb to against your better judgment. Alcohol? Chocolate cake? Television? It’s not that we don’t know what’s best for us, it’s simply that the frontal-lobe circuits representing long-term considerations can’t always win against short-term desire when temptation is in front of us.