Worldview

Is Your Brain a Meat Machine?

Edge.org is running a fascinating series of articles asking major public figures in science, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”

Prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s answer is “Determinism.” In his words, “All matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics.”

And Coyne jumps right to the significance of his viewpoint:

The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”: At a given moment, all living creatures, including ourselves, are constrained by their genes and environment to behave in only one way—and could not have behaved differently. We feel like we make choices, but we don’t.

Of course, the issue of “free will” has been taken up by Christian theologians throughout the centuries; the Bible isn’t silent on this issue. I want to analyze Coyne’s viewpoint and then offer you some biblical suggestions for how to evaluate it.

Every society has a priestly class, the people generally trusted to be arbiters of what’s true. Among educated Westerners, notes one scientist, “doctors and scientists [are] at the top of the list.” And here is one of our top arbiters—Coyne is indeed a very gifted scientist and communicator—telling us that our choice to read his article instead of sneaking some more Nutella was determined by two atoms going bump in the night, long ago, before there was such a thing as night—or ago.

Our brain…is simply a collection of molecules that follow the laws of physics; it’s simply a computer made of meat. That in turn means that given the brain’s constitution and inputs, its output—our thoughts, behaviors and ‘choices’—must obey those laws. There’s no way we can step outside our mind to tinker with those outputs.

Not all conflicts between mainstream Western science and Christian faith are this overt, this direct. But the Bible not only affirms the existence of immaterial beings but says that we ourselves have “spirits” and “souls” and “hearts” and “minds”—which aren’t reducible to the cause-and-effect laws of physics. The “spirit” in the Bible is, among other things, “that which animates or gives life to the body,” (BDAG) because when your spirit leaves you, you die: “Jesus … yielded up his spirit” (Matt 27:50; James 2:26; Ps 104:29). For a very few people we know of in Scripture, God sent that spirit back: Jairus’ deceased daughter’s “spirit returned, and she got up at once” (Luke 8:55; Rev 11:11). “Spirit” in the Bible also refers to at least one narrow aspect of man’s immaterial being: Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit” (Mark 8:12). But in Coyne’s view, nothing can be any deeper inside you than about six inches.

Coyne doubles down on his view as soon as the natural question arises, like cause and effect: then are people not responsible for their actions?

Realizing that we can’t “choose otherwise” has profound implications for how we punish and reward people, especially criminals. . .. If we can’t choose freely, but are puppets manipulated by the laws of physics, then all criminals or transgressors should be treated as products of genes and environments that made them behave badly. . .. All of them, whether or not they know the difference between right and wrong, have the same excuse as those deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

There’s actually a part of me which sees some real appeal in this line of reasoning, and the Bible has a name for that part of me, too: it’s called the “flesh” (Gal 5:16–21). I can’t deny that that part of me would like a world where I get to give up my guilt in exchange for giving up a freedom it sure feels like I still have. My flesh would willingly sacrifice the pack’s survival on the altar of my pleasure.

But I reject my own flesh. Without taking sides here on the intramural Christian debate between Calvinists and Arminians, I can say with confidence that I and all orthodox Christians believe in the reality of human choices—because the Bible does. Biblical religion teaches that there are constraints on human choices (Rom 7:15–18), but all Old Testament textual critics agree that Joshua did not put “choose” in scare quotes when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). All Christians believe in moral responsibility, even for the mere “careless words men speak” (Matt 12:36–37).

All the ways Christians are accustomed to talking about sanctification, repentance, sin, and grace are destroyed in Coyne’s “reductive materialist” view, a fact for which he is glad (he says that given his views, “the Abrahamic religions dissolve into insignificance”). He even makes Christ’s sacrifice for us a sad mistake, for why should an incarnate God die for robots who were only carrying out their programming? But the Bible says Christ died “for the ungodly,” “for sinners” (Rom 5:6), not for automata.

Coyne the fundamentalist

Dr. Jerry Coyne is a rock-ribbed fundamentalist who puts me to shame, because my ribs have some flex compared to his—mine allow me to breathe. I sometimes have to resort to words like “paradox” and “mystery” when I contemplate the interplay of divine sovereignty and the reality of human choices. But Coyne is cock-sure that he has reached the deepest level of reality:

We don’t have any choice about what we do, and we never did. We can come to terms with this, just as we come to terms with our mortality. Though we may not like such truths, accepting them is the beginning of wisdom.

If Coyne gets to quote the Bible in the public square, so do I (if my blog even counts as public). In Not By Chance there’s a valuable appendix full of verses that I find myself going back to regularly. In it author Layton Talbert shows that the Bible simply asserts—often in the very same line—God’s rule and human moral responsibility, the reality of human choice. He quotes a number of Scripture passages in which he bolds statements about the divine will and italicizes statements of human responsibility. It takes only one to show that the Bible takes a vastly different view from that of Jerry Coyne:

My beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13)

Do you see? Not only does this passage assume the reality of human responsibility and choice; it urges human obedience as a logical consequence of the power of God’s will. No explanation is given, only assertion. Other passages do stretch further toward an explanation, but I’d be showing my theological cards if I told you which ones I thought did so. I’m content instead to have you take a look yourself—click this link to see the other passages Talbert uses. If you’re interested in studying further, copy them into Logos 7’s Sermon Editor or a word processor and bold and italicize the text yourself.

On knotty philosophical-theological questions such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, all Christians should humbly let the Bible speak. And when it contradicts cultural authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Worldview

Jerry Coyne Vs. C.S. Lewis

Reductive materialist Jerry Coyne doesn’t believe human choices are real. They are, he says, just matter and energy doing what they’ve always done. He thinks, however, that we should still “punish criminals,” that we should, in fact,

remove them from society when they’re dangerous, reform them so they can rejoin us, and deter others from apeing bad behavior. But we shouldn’t imprison people as retribution—for making a ‘bad choice.’

One must in this case point out that C.S. Lewis was arguing against this point long before Coyne was born. He pointed out that while retributive justice is concrete—an eye for an eye, a six-month sentence for a robbery, a fine for a traffic infraction—“reform” lasts until the powers that be proclaim it complete. Such a view puts the criminal under a despotic power to which no human has a right. Here’s Lewis:

Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of ‘retribution’. And what can be more outrageous than to catch me and submit me to a disagreeable process of moral improvement without my consent, unless (once more) I deserve it? (91–92)

There is an infinite regress in Coyne’s reasoning:

Understanding that we have no choices should create more empathy and less hostility towards others when we grasp that everyone is the victim of circumstances over which they had no control.

That “should” sounds like a moral “should.” But what if I don’t wanna have more empathy for those jerks and blockheads in the other political party? Aren’t I only the victim of a circumstances beyond which I have no control? Shouldn’t they start having some empathy for my physics-based inability to have empathy for them? As Coyne himself goes on to say, “Jerks had no choice about becoming jerks.” But that sword cuts both ways. Over and over. Till what Christians call “morality” is left in tatters on the floor.

I’ll stick with Lewis’ view—the Bible’s view: that human choices are real even if they have constraints on them (Rom 7:15–18). I’ve got a post coming out on Logos Talk with more detail.

Worldview

Exegesis

Piety

Theology

Love the Sin and Hate the Sinner

This is a great insight into a precious truth from Doug Wilson:

Christians are accustomed to distinguish the sin from the sinner. This distinction is good and right, but it is only possible to make this distinction because of what Jesus did on the cross. It is possible for a man to be forgiven, which is to say, it is possible for a distinction to be made between that man and his sins. The man can now be taken in one direction, and his sins in another. He may be established on dry land, and his sins are in the deepest part of the sea (Mic. 7:19).

In Doug’s article he gives a sad example of how our world is loving sin and hating sinners.

Bible Typography

ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set: A “New” Old Bible

This review originally appeared in the Christian Library Journal. It is used here by permission.

The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, published by Crossway (cloth over board with cardboard slipcase), is something old, something new, something different, and something blue green—if you get the beautiful cloth-over-board edition, which is what’s best for libraries. It’s old, because presenting text in a simple, beautiful, and typographically intelligible way is an old idea. It’s new, because hardly anyone has ever made a Bible so innovatively old. It’s different, because Bible design has been in a deep rut since longer than you can remember.

What is theESV Reader’s Bible? Look:

No chapter numbers, no verse numbers, no double columns—this is a Bible with type set like a regular non-fiction book. You can’t see it in the image above, but the Bible also has uncommonly large type for easy reading and thick paper so text doesn’t show through as much as it does with normal (and very thin) Bible paper.

The ESV Reader’s Bible has come in a single-volume edition, with that thin Bible paper, for several years. What’s brand new—and exciting for those who care about the confluence of form and meaning in Bible typography—is the beautiful six-volume set. All Christian libraries should acquire it, not because of the hype currently surrounding Bible typography (yes, in a portion of the Christian world there is genuine hype over this topic), but because there is something of genuine substance being recovered by “reader’s” Bible editions.

That something—as detailed by writers like Glenn Paauw (Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well), Christopher R. Smith (After Chapters and Verses), J. Mark Bertrand (The Bible Design Blog), Andy Naselli (professor), and me, Mark Ward (presenter of “Why Bible Typography Matters”)—sounds something like this: divvying up the Bible into chapters and (especially) verses is not always conducive to healthy Bible reading practices. In particular, Christian people can tend to read verses out of context when each verse is treated (typographically) as a separate paragraph. A reader’s Bible, which is available in many translations besides the ESV (the NIV, TNIV, KJV, and [modified] ASV all have reader’s editions now), uses all of the typographical conventions skillful modern readers rely on for other nonfiction books: single columns, paragraphs, poetic indents, and simple, beautiful typography. Gone are not only the verse divisions but the superscript numbers and letters and the cross references and the columns and the study notes—all the things that clutter up and sometimes positively obscure the Bible text on the page.

The ESV Reader’s Bible is not an attack on verse numbers. This reviewer works for a Bible software company (Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software), and without those numbers our work would fall apart. Commentaries, confessions, reference works, sermons, and countless other Christian resources rely on the verse reference system. It is helpful for many, many things—but not, ironically, for reading. Now that we all have Bible apps which can find any verse, why do we need verse divisions in our printed Bibles? Truth be known, most Western Christians already have multiple Bibles in their homes. We have not needed all of them to be feature-studded study editions (rather than reader’s editions) for a long time.

The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible comes with a slipcase, cloth-over-board bindings, thicker and creamier paper, and an attention to design detail that clearly borrows from the design of the past and the present. It even arrives in a beautifully designed box. Some have suggested that it and other reader’s Bibles (particularly Bibliotheca, a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that the ESV Reader’s Bible beat to the public by a few months) are hipster ephemera like other bespoke throwbacks—making one’s own pickles, vinyl record stores, handlebar mustaches, etc. But the aesthetics of the unboxing can be viewed from another perspective: the value of place. There is a story to reader’s Bibles, an infused delight in the craft of printing and design, a return to typographical roots.

I am convinced, and have been for over a decade, that reader’s Bibles are not a gimmick. I therefore hope and pray that it will not be a mere fad. Christian librarians, whose lives are spent in the pages of books, would do well to read up on reader’s Bibles, capitalize (yes) on the hipsteria over them, and help Christians see the value of reading the Bible as story, prophecy, poetry, and epistle rather than as reference volume. Whether the ESV Reader’s Bible gets read as an artificial marketing gimmick or an authentically valuable way to encounter the Bible is up to readers and those who serve and educate them.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., CLJ