Thursday, July 13, 2006

A fortuitous concatenation of atoms

Tolstoy became a believer in Jesus when he was 50 years old, following a crisis of faith.
"Having questioned myself, and having questioned the reputed philosophers whom I knew, as to what I am and as to the purport of my life, and, after getting the reply that I was a fortuitous concatenation of atoms, and that my life was void of purport, and that life itself is evil, I became desperate, and wished to put an end to my life." (Tolstoy, The Gospel In Brief)

This notion still has legs today: A head for trouble
We like to think it's our choice to help an old lady across the road or push her into the traffic. But an increasing number of scientists say we're fooling ourselves. Are some of us just hard-wired to be bad?

It's an interesting article that's worth reading, not only for the science but for the philosophy and theology bound up within it. Are we merely products of chemical responses in the brain?

I believe that in many cases, this is probably true. Doesn't remove responsibility, but it does explain some things.

Being a mom of three, two of whom are not my biological progeny (but still very much my own, thank you), I have been able to see that there are many things that are just built into a child's brain from the get-go. Most of the unpleasant or antisocial elements can (and should) be modified through training (most kids tend to lie, and we teach them not to do so), but some things are just not overcome-able, such as bipolar disorder and severe depression, and require external controls such as medication.

Arguably, liars, thieves, muggers and pedophiles, like saints, philanthropists and Good Samaritans, are not bad or good -- just "different," their brains having disposed them to behaviour outside the moral norm. The eminent American neuroscientist Professor Terry Sejnowski once told me his work had made him less prone to judge others: "Neuroscience teaches us that all our drives and compulsions are unequal." The religious doctrines of original sin -- meaning we are prone to prefer wrong by nature -- conscience and free will have been eroded by rationalism, science and secularism over the past two centuries, yet a powerful belief in responsibility for our actions remains -- in family life, friendships, soap operas, newspapers and the criminal-justice system. The tendency to find excuses for bad behaviour was inherent in Freud. But it was neuroscience, which took off in the mid-1980s, that accelerated the process.

With the collapse of communism, a large slice of American national science funding was diverted, as part of the post-cold-war peace dividend, into the biology of the brain. The anticipated payoff was the promise, touted by the pharmaceutical industry, that the US economy could save $350 billion a year by reducing brain-related problems including Alzheimer's, depression, workplace stress and, above all, violence. The 1990s came to be called the Decade of the Brain. This brainstorming was sweet music to thinkers bent on putting to rest for ever the ancient notion that our minds are separate from our bodies. As Patricia Churchland has put it, "human beings are not controlled by a spooky-stuff soul." Churchland, who styles herself a neuro-philosopher, announced a new age in which brain states would explain the human condition.

One of her gurus was the late Nobel laureate Francis Crick [one of the discoverers of the DNA double-helix shape]. At a neuroscience meeting in Orlando in 1996, I listened to Crick declaring: "Your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Later he invited me to tea at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where he asserted, waving a blue teapot in the air: "Neuroscience will give us a more authentic causal explanation for human behaviour than unscientific and hence unreliable folk psychology." By folk psychology he meant history, fiction, memoir, poetry, philosophy and religion.

Crick was not alone in believing that the whole of our mental life, including our choices and our sense of responsibility, is no more than a kind of determined chemical software program running in a computer-like brain. Being good means an efficient program; being bad -- pedophilia, rape, theft, lying, murder -- means a defective program. Against this background, it seems feasible to correct a defective program with mind-altering drugs...

The more atheistic scientists are quick to make the leap to proclaiming proof of a Godless, morality-free world, but I think that their discoveries only prove the opposite -- that original sin really IS bound up within us, that we're sinful from the moment of conception (Psalm 139), and that we have no hope of overcoming this sinful nature apart from a loving and involved Savior. If we're hard-wired to be bad, and after placing faith in Christ we do good things, how else can that be explained except supernaturally?

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