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).

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Is Your Brain a Meat Machine?”

  1. “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.”

    “should” be? What’s that mean? How does a word like “should” fit into hyper-determinism?

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