The Briefing 06-03-16
Tags: Audio, Fee Will, Naturalism
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, June 3, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The logical Darwinist doesn't believe in moral responsibility—but he sure hopes his neighbor does.
An absolutely amazing, major article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly that tells us a very great deal about where we are as a society on the question of human will, of human moral responsibility, of what it means to be human. Stephen Cave, a philosopher, writes this big story for The Atlantic with the headline,
“There’s No Such Thing as Free Will. But we’re better off believing in it anyway.”
Cave writes an article that, perhaps more than any other I’ve seen in recent months, summarizes the quandary and contradictions of the strange age in which we live. To set the stage for what we’re talking about here, we need to recognize that increasingly the evolutionary worldview, grounded in the worldview of naturalism or materialism, denies that there is any dualism to the human being—that is, it denies that there is any such reality as the spiritual dimension or the soul. It instead tells us the human consciousness in its entirety, every aspect of our consciousness, including our moral decision-making, is simply a matter of a physical reality.
This worldview, which is increasingly dominant in the academy and is the necessary implication of Darwinism, tells us that we are eventually, our brains, the human consciousness, is nothing more than a biological or chemical process. It’s nothing more than the interaction of atoms and molecules with chemicals in our brain. What Stephen Cave recognizes is that if that is true, that basically undercuts the very notion of what it means to be human or to be morally responsible.
Cave sets the stage for our consideration of the question with these words,
“For centuries philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong.”
He then very carefully and rightly writes,
“In the Christian tradition, this is known as ‘moral liberty’—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires.”
Well, let’s stop right there. Sometimes when Christian theologians discuss free will, they’re not discussing this aspect of what it means to be human. Sometimes, rightly, free will is debated in terms of our response to God and our response to the Gospel. That’s a separate conversation. Stephen Cave here rightly understands that what is unanimous, and not only among Christian theologians in the past, but also amongst persons of virtually every other civilization and worldview. What has been asserted is what’s rightly described as moral liberty or free moral agency. That is to say, human beings made in God’s image, according to Scripture, have the real experience of making moral choices—moral choices, the biblical worldview affirms, for which we are responsible. That’s why Stephen Cave rightly says this has been termed in Christian theology “moral liberty,” and he also rightly points out that without it there’s no real understanding of how human responsibility can be affirmed as even being real.
Now at this point, Cave goes on to say this has been a matter of unanimous affirmation, not only among Christian theologians or even theologians of other world religions, not only amongst virtually all civilizations, but even until recently of the modern secular worldview, going back to Immanuel Kant. As he writes,
“The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.”
So Cave then says today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream, the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. He then cites President Barack Obama, who wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope that American values “are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
Then Stephen Cave asked the question,
“So what happens if this faith erodes?”
What would it mean for that faith in free will or moral liberty or human responsibility to erode? Well, Cave writes about that in the next paragraph:
“The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance.”
Here you have the long-standing debate in Western philosophy between nature and nurture. Cave then writes that,
“In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”
What does all this come down to? Well, Cave writes later in his article,
“The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.”
Now, Cave goes on to say that this is not really new. As a matter of fact, he says that even decades ago American psychologists and philosophers, psychiatrists, and scientists were arguing that free will—that is, free moral liberty and moral decision-making—were actually illusory. He then goes to say that what’s really interesting is the present when there is now an acceleration of these claims, and the inevitable fact that this new theory of what it means to be human, this new theory of human moral behavior, is now running right into direct conflicts with the way we do American politics and, furthermore, how we understand the criminal law.
“This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?”
Well, let’s just think for a moment: Those institutions are, well, just about every institution. And the assumption of human responsibility is so pervasive in our culture that there is no aspect of our culture in which it is not directly operational, and furthermore, there’s no dimension of our culture in which the abandonment of human responsibility doesn’t actually mean absolute disaster. I think Cave seems to understand that. That’s why the headline, the cover story in terms of this article in The Atlantic, is that there is no such thing as free will, basically, but that we would still be better off if we act like there is such a reality as human responsibility.
Now just consider for a moment the ramifications of that kind of mental game. That’s exactly what Cave is calling us to here, and he’s not doing so on his own authority; he is citing the larger discussion that is now inevitably taking place in scientific and legal circles about the implications of this entirely physicalist or materialist understanding of the human being. Now just how big a problem would this be? Well, Cave helps us to understand by going to other contemporary research indicating that when people abandon the belief in moral responsibility and moral choice, they actually end up making very bad choices and demonstrating very bad behavior. He writes,
“It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts. Vohs emphasized that this result is not limited to the contrived conditions of a lab experiment. ‘You see the same effects with people who naturally believe more or less in free will.’”
So what are they telling us? They’re telling us that people who believe in moral responsibility act in morally superior ways, and the people who do not believe in moral responsibility are far less likely to live morally responsible lives. Now that should tell us something that the Christian worldview would already have made abundantly clear. The Christian worldview makes our moral responsibility very evident as a part of our creation. A part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be made a moral creature who cannot not know that there is a right and that there is a wrong. A part of being made in the image of God is the possession of what we call a conscience, and that conscience cries out our moral responsibility. And it’s not only our conscience, of course, it is God’s Word, the Holy Bible, that makes abundantly clear that we are morally responsible.
Just consider what was set before Israel as you come to the end of the book of Deuteronomy. For example, in Deuteronomy chapter 30 where the Lord through Moses speaks to his people and says,
“See, I have set before you today life and good, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life and live.”
And God makes abundantly clear that choosing of life means the choosing of obedience to his law. God treats his human creatures from the very beginning as being morally responsible, and that goes back to the basic law that he set down for Adam and Eve even concerning what they could and could not eat. All throughout Scripture, one of the most consistent themes is human moral responsibility and our failure to live up to obedience to the law.
Now Stephen Cave is asking the question that is being raised by so many contemporary intellectual scientists and others. How will human beings behave in a moral manner if they no longer believe that their behavior is a matter of their own responsibility? Cave goes on to describe many who are now absolutely rejecting free moral agency or moral responsibility. He cites one who is convinced that free will doesn’t exist in the traditional sense. But nonetheless,
“It would be very bad if most people realized this.”
The professor Cave is talking about here is Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel. Cave tells us that this professor has wrestled with the dilemma of human responsibility throughout his career, and he’s come to a painful conclusion,
“‘We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth’ about free will.”
“[Professor] Smilansky is convinced,” says Cave, “that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this.
“‘Imagine,’ he told Cave, ‘that I’m deliberating whether to do my duty, such as to parachute into enemy territory, or something more mundane like to risk my job by reporting on some wrongdoing. If everyone accepts that there is no free will, then I’ll know that people will say, ‘Whatever he did, he had no choice—we can’t blame him.’ So I know I’m not going to be condemned for taking the selfish option.’ This, he believes, is very dangerous for society, and ‘the more people accept the determinist picture, the worse things will get.’”
An amazingly candid statement. That’s what makes this article so very, very important. Here you have a professor who says, on the basis of his worldview and his research, there’s no such thing as free will, but that’s a horrifying reality that will lead to all kinds of problems. It will be dangerous indeed disastrous, this professor admits, if his understanding of human nature is understood by his fellow human beings. Here you have a professor who is openly hoping that his own neighbors don’t understand the truth that he believes is nonetheless accurate about them—that they have no moral responsibility.
Now, here you see another clear test of a worldview. If a worldview is true, then it will be demonstrably true. It will be coherent in terms of its claims—that is, its claims will hold together—and it will correspond to objective reality. But here you have a professor admitting that his worldview—admittedly directly at variance with God’s revelation in Scripture—that his worldview would lead to social disaster if the worldview were understood by others. Here you have a professor saying there’s no such thing as free will, but we better keep that our dirty little secret and not let the folks outside the academy, outside the university, understand what we’re talking about.
But Stephen Cave has, in effect, let the cat out of the bag with this article, and once again we go back to the title. He says there’s no such thing as free will, but it will still be a good thing if we act as if there is. But that’s a huge problem. How do we expect human beings to act in a way that is morally responsible? How do we expect them to act as if they are morally responsible when we supposedly know internally and know objectively that they are not?
Well, that’s not only a huge problem, it’s actually an unsolvable problem, an insoluble problem. It’s the kind of problem that one directly encounters, it’s the kind of problem you set up the moment that you abandon the biblical worldview for any kind of modern secular worldview. Stephen Cave has been so clear that this is directly traceable to Charles Darwin in the theory of evolution. That materialistic, naturalistic worldview eventually has to explain everything in purely naturalistic and materialistic terms, and that includes every aspect of human behavior and human consciousness. And that includes our moral responsibility
By the way, Steve quotes authorities such as the contemporary new atheist, Sam Harris, who’s going on the record in a small book arguing that free will is nonexistent and that even the worst criminals are basically unlucky rather than immoral,
“They didn’t pick their genes. They didn’t pick their parents. They didn’t make their brains, yet their brains are the source of their intentions and actions.”
Well, here you have an absolutely honest statement of Sam Harris’s worldview, but it’s an ultimately and indeed immediately disastrous worldview that will lead to absolute cultural and social disaster and moral disaster as well.
Interestingly, by the time he concludes his article, Stephen Cave comes to the argument that it’s President Barack Obama who perhaps has the solution, because President Obama is tied to that secular worldview that in essence denies human responsibility. But as Cave points out, the President in his writings and in his speeches acts as if human beings are morally responsible. Cave concludes his article by writing this,
“To some people, this may sound like a gratuitous attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too.”
I’ll simply stop there and say, well of course it does because that’s exactly what it is. But Cave continues,
“And in a way it is. It is an attempt to retain the best parts of the free-will belief system while ditching the worst. President Obama—who has both defended ‘a faith in free will’ and argued that we are not the sole architects of our fortune—has had to learn what a fine line this is to tread. Yet it might be what we need to rescue the American dream—and indeed, many of our ideas about civilization, the world over—in the scientific age.”
Well, when you come to the end of an article like this and you have a straightforward assessment, a straightforward claim that there is no such thing as moral liberty, there is no such thing as free moral will, there’s no such thing as ultimately human responsibility, but that it would be disastrous if this were known, and instead we have to live as if human beings are responsible—if you come to the end of a statement like this, presenting an argument as monumental as this, and all you can come up with is that we have to somehow come up with a way to act responsible when we know we’re not, well, there you have proof positive that this is a worldview that can end only in disaster, disappointment, and disillusionment.
Now here we need to go a bit further as Christians and come to understand that human moral responsibility is not only affirmed in Scripture, but also affirmed in Scripture is the fact that every single human being, made in God’s image, is what is described rightly as a psychosomatic unity—that is the unity of body and of soul, that God has made us spiritual beings, that a part of what it means to be made in His image is indeed to possess a soul that is not merely a physicalist reality that is tied only to our brains but is something that will survive us. And you see that’s where we come to understand that in rejecting the grand truth claims of Christianity rooted in Scripture, the modern secular worldview doesn’t disagree with us, doesn’t come into conflict with the biblical worldview only at isolated points where collision might happen, but in virtually every single point, now coming down to the very definition of what it means to be human and the question as to whether or not humans are morally responsible.
But at this point, I’m going to leave that really important article in The Atlantic to pick up as an illustration just one other periodical in one issue. It’s the May 25, 2016 edition of the Christian Century, which is in many ways the flagship periodical of Protestant liberalism. The new publisher of the magazine, Peter W. Marty, opens with an editorial in which he is speaking of a man, Nai-Wang Kwok, who was honored recently, given an award known as the Lux et Veritas award— that is light and truth— which Marty describes as “an award given each year to an individual with demonstrated excellence and distinction in ministering with Christlike compassion.”
He speaks of the award being given to Mr. Kwok, and after he had spoken just a few sentences, sitting down to generous applause from the audience.
A second article in this edition of the magazine points to the CEO and President of the Chobani yogurt company who recently gave his 2000 full-time employees a 10% stake in the company. Long-term employees were told could now receive a stake worth more than $1 million. The founder, an immigrant from Turkey, regards this giveaway as one of the finest moments of his life.
“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built with all these people.”
And thus you have the Christian Century honoring this capitalist who has given away much of his company to his employees.
The third article has to do with a far more familiar figure, and this is Harriet Tubman, who will now be depicted on the front of the $20 bill that as announced by the U.S. Treasury Department with bills that will be released beginning in the year 2020. Harriet Tubman is recognized as a heroic figure here, a heroine who after receiving her own freedom from slavery, willingly put her life in danger numerous times in order to lead other slaves to liberty in the North. But here you have a huge problem. If we are indeed merely physicalist creatures without any real human responsibility, then neither blame nor credit can properly be given to any human being. You follow that worldview through to its conclusion, and all these articles are basically nonsense.
All three of these individuals, living and dead, are understood, according to this worldview as described by Stephen Cave, as being totally without any moral meaning whatsoever. But here you have a liberal, Protestant magazine, indeed the most influential liberal Protestant magazine in American history, that is here honoring three people that the editors clearly believe are worthy of honor. But if the modern secular understanding of evolution and its ultimate implications is to be believed, then these articles amount to nothing more than nonsense. The point made by the way by The Atlantic article is that all of this, including the denial of human moral responsibility, is a necessary implication of Darwinism. And the reason I raise this is because the Christian Century has been virtually from the very beginning of that magazine an ardent defender of evolution. Here you have another example of trying, as Stephen Cave says, to have your cake and to eat it too.
But finally, I have to note that the very same edition, the very same issue of The Atlantic that had that article, important as it is by Stephen Cave, also ran an article by Nathaniel Comfort with the headline,
“Genes Are Overrated.”
“Their discovery wasn’t predestined, nor do they dictate our destinies—and current ideas about them may die.”
In so many ways, this article is a direct contradiction to that article by Stephen Cave; but it didn’t appear in some other journal in some other periodical, in some other time. It appeared in the very same issue of the very same magazine, raising the question, did the editors read both of these articles? Once again, we have evidence of the incoherence that is inevitable when the biblical worldview is abandoned.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at Albert Mohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.