May 26, 2017

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 3, Chapter 3: How Free Am I?

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 3, Chapter 3: How Free Am I?

We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience.

Today Part 3, Chapter 3: How Free Am I?

Malcolm’s student raises the question; since the brain is a physical system made up of atoms and molecules, how can there be any room for the top-down processes you have described that enable us to make choices and decisions?  Malcolm begins by discussing how this is a problem for the legal system.

  • The Royal Society in London convened a forum in 2011 with neuroscientists and lawyers to discuss neuroscience and the law.
  • The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation has invested several millions of dollars to fund research in this area.
  • In 2009 in Italy a women was convicted of murder and her legal defense neuroscientist demonstrated that she had structural brain anomalies and a geneticist demonstrated she had genes (the MAOA so-called warrior gene) predisposing her to violence. The judge reduced her sentence from life to 20 years.

Malcolm notes it is a genuine issue.  It is well documented that people with brain tumors have seemed to lost control over their actions and lie, damage property, even in extreme rare cases commit murder.  The individuals simply lose the ability to control impulses or anticipate the consequences of choices.  Whereas, prior to the tumor they did not have those problems.

The solutions proposed to justify our conviction that we have free will fall into two groups:

  1. The “compatibilists” who argue that determinism is compatible with free will.
  2. The “libertarians” who argue that free will requires a fundamental indeterminism in nature, and in particular in the way the brain functions. In order to justify the required indeterminism, most of those who invoke the libertarian view depend heavily on what in physics is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

He notes that for the Christian is the further question of how each of these approaches relates to what the Bible teaches about our responsibilities to choose wisely.  How many sermons have you heard on “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” or “If anyone is willing… then…”  Can we really choose?

He then give a synopsis of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for his student and notes that most scientists argue that the Heisenberg effects are much too small to affect even the most sensitive physical changes in the brain, such as the concentration of synaptic calcium.  Most of those who attempt to free the brain from determinism using the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle have yet to convince fellow scientists, who are aware of the smallness of the uncertainty involved, of the cogency of their case.  I would tend to agree with the critics here.

Malcolm then points out there is increasing evidence that leads us to believe that systems made up of elements obeying the laws of physics nevertheless embody forms of causation that seem to transcend the determinism of the atomic, physical and chemical laws.  The two concepts that we come across most often in these discussions are emergence and a more sophisticated version of what he called “top-down effects”, which is actually top-down causation.  If you put these things together, a scientifically plausible picture emerges of one possible way in which mental processes and moral agencies can remain the real causes of behavior even though embodied with a physical/biological system.  He says:

The concept of emergence helps to describe how complex entities like biological organisms can have properties that do not exist within the elements, such as molecules, that make up the organism.  Even simple organisms like an amoeba, which is a complex organization of molecules, manifest properties that don’t exist in the molecules themselves. The behavior of the amoeba depends upon the current state of the organization of the molecules, not the molecules themselves.  In this sense the activity of the amoeba is an example of an emergent property.

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-linear dynamical system. Studying this system helped give rise to chaos theory.

In the scientific literature another term for emergence is dynamical systems theory.  Application of this theory helps explain how new causal properties, such as the behavior of humans can emerge in complex systems characterized by a high level of nonlinear interactions between their elements.  A perfect example of this is the human cerebral cortex.  The millions of neurons and their millions of interconnections form an ideal dynamical system.  From this point of view, the elements of human neurobiology in the form of the cerebral cortex produce the cognitive properties of a whole person.

These higher level emergent properties are similar to what Jeeves said about top-down effects.  Looked at in this way, thinking, believing, and remembering can be seen as represented by shifting patterns in the dynamical neural system, and these patterns create top-down influences on the lower-level neuropsychological phenomena that are the substrate of, and that support, the mental activities themselves.

What this amounts to is that the description of the mind-brain in terms of its physical properties is compatible with a description of the same system in terms of mental concepts like thinking, believing, and remembering.  Both levels of description are necessary to give a full account of the whole unbelievably complex system.

Well, as I finish typing these words, I hear the faint drumbeat of the determinists, the reductionists, and the empiricists as they mass their tribes for the attack.  Fine.  Bring it.  I chose this book (see what I did there) knowing that it would be a great controversial conversation generator, and on issues that are important for a faith-science dialogue.  But know this; without these higher-level mental conceptual tools, we cannot even talk about and debate these issues, and in this sense, any attempt to reduce them to the chattering of interacting neurons at once empties them of all logic and meaning.  That argument is self-contradictory and therefore self-defeating.


Dana Ames- she’s up to the challenge too!!


Mike “Cool-Hand” Mercer will back me up


Charles Fines, a little unconventional, but still has my back…


Robert F and Adam Tauno Williams, I mean if you’re going to have a brain-fight, who better?


And, only if absolutely necessary, in extreme situations…

Daniel “Apocalypse Now” Jepsen !!!!!!!

Another Look: Wisdom and the Fog

Note from CM: I have an extraordinarily busy week since I’m covering for our other chaplain’s caseload as well as my own. So, on Mon-Wed I’m re-posting some of my favorite stories and reflections from my work as a hospice chaplain. If I don’t get to clear comments that get held right away, please be patient. I’ll do my best.

• • •

Many plans are in a man’s heart,
But the counsel of the Lord will stand.
What is desirable in a man is his kindness…

• Proverbs 19:21-22, NASB

• • •

I stand on top of a rise in the road. Before me, a valley stretches, still shrouded in fog. Behind me, the sun has burned its way clear and I can see the ways I’ve come. I can make out a few of the sharper turns, various forks and crossroads where I chose this way or that for one reason or another, spots along the way where the road disappeared into a dark wood, then emerged on scenery wholly new. Well past halfway on my journey, I’ve forgotten more than I remember, and some of what I recall I don’t trust. In some ways I’m more sure of my path, in other ways I’ve never been less able to plot my course.

This week I will officiate the funeral of an old friend. Several years ago, our families attended the same church and we were part of the same social small group. We spent New Year’s Eves together, played cards, laughed a lot, and talked about our families and work. A simple guy, he didn’t talk much, and wasn’t much of churchgoer. We weren’t close, but I was there as a pastor and friend at some important times, and he always seemed genuinely happy to have us in his home. About my age, now he’s gone. Over the years, we’ve only seen each other rarely, and he and the family have had their struggles: finances, house problems, mental illness in the family. Last I heard he and his wife were getting divorced, he had a girlfriend, and it wasn’t pretty. Complications from a chronic health condition took his life suddenly and unexpectedly last week.

And I get to speak words of “wisdom” to comfort his family and friends at the funeral.

Which is a funny thing, because at this point in the journey, I’m not sure I know what wisdom is. I have some hindsight, for sure, and plenty of experience. Maybe that qualifies. I have a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God than ever before, but it is not the kind of trust that can be expressed in “answers.” The thought of God’s sovereignty is like the fog in the valley ahead of me — a mystery that envelops the world but obscures my view. To think that I would appeal to such a concept as comfort for myself or others seems kind of crazy, to tell the truth. People don’t generally expect the guy down in the mail room to be able to delineate the intricate decisions of the CEO. About all I can say is, “I have no idea how to explain it, but I guess he knows what he’s doing.”

Recently we saw another couple who had been members of a congregation where I served on staff in the past. We haven’t really talked for about ten years. They’ve been to three different churches since then. Their son now tours with a punk band and they didn’t seem interested in going into details. They did want to discuss how the husband is making plans for retirement, and since they have been very diligent about money matters, it looks like they’ll move to the Rockies and live the dream. They seemed reasonably happy, but you never know.

On one level, I’m not a big fan of the book of Proverbs. Read in certain ways, it cannot help but promote self-righteousness. Dividing the world into “wise people” and “fools” leaves little room for nuance. Pharisees love it because it organizes life neatly into divinely demarcated divisions and makes the rules and rewards clear. It is elder brother theology par excellence. It scoffs when the silly, sentimental old man loses his mind and runs out to welcome home the wastrel.

A guy with whom I used to coach Little League told me the other day his son and girlfriend and new baby are moving into their house for awhile. It will be a crowded situation with many opportunities for irritation, conflict, and hurt feelings. Been there, done that. I know they didn’t expect this, and I’m sure they are wondering where this will all lead. They have a good spirit about it (or at least they put on a good face about it), and I hope to spend more time with them in days to come. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I’d love to be a friend and an encouragement if possible.

In the end, I guess that’s what I will say at my friend’s funeral. The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing. But I know that love is real. I’m here to be your friend today, and I want to encourage you to be friends to each other. That’s how Jesus showed his love to us — by befriending us and laying down his life for us. We’re here to do the same for one another.

It’s foggy ahead, and the way is not clear.

Take a hand and enter the fog together.

Don’t let go.

Another Look: Breakfast

Note from CM: I have an extraordinarily busy week since I’m covering for our other chaplain’s caseload as well as my own. So, on Mon-Wed I’m re-posting some of my favorite stories and reflections from my work as a hospice chaplain. If I don’t get to clear comments that get held right away, please be patient. I’ll do my best.

• • •

Breakfast. Photo by Emily Maiden

He sits across the table from me as we enjoy our biscuits and gravy. A good ol’ boy, a true Hoosier. He had been a pretty good baseball player when he first met her. But he was rough around the edges and she thought him uncouth. He didn’t know how to eat properly, she said. Still somehow, they fell in love, and she took him in and converted him into a presentable-enough gentleman.

Not that he ever became a white collar guy. He worked for a trucking company his whole life. He tells me he learned a cuss word or three on the job. Now that she is gone, he’s been talking to her and the Lord about that, to see if he could get some help cleaning up his language. A few other things needed forgiving too, though he doesn’t tell me what. He does make a point to say that this time, he wants to say grace before we eat (last time, we got to talking and forgot).

She had been the picture of dignity. Always took care of herself and looked good. She was what they used to call a real “lady.” Talented too. Worked in an executive’s office and kept it running. Played the organ in church and had fine taste in music. Made sure the two of them worked hard and kept a spotless home, a well-groomed lawn and gardens.

But with all her natural strength and grace, she was never snobbish. She too was an Midwest girl, rooted and grounded in the common sense soil of the heartland. She married a ballplayer, a blue-collar guy, linked her life to his and they became inseparable partners. He loved classic cars and they traveled all around the country putting on car shows and hanging out with gearheads. She became an avid sports fan and cheered as loudly and fanatically as he did when they went to games their teams were playing. They traveled around together and camped with the family and went to the casinos and enjoyed a life as regular and down-to-earth as could be.

He and I are having breakfast because now she’s gone. He finds it hard to eat at home without her. After nearly sixty years of sharing every day together, he’s experiencing “alone” for the first time.

“What do you have going today?” I ask him.

He laughs. “Just you,” he says.

So we eat our biscuits and gravy, drink our coffee, and talk about whether the Hoosiers are going to have a good basketball season this year. I console him about the Dodgers, his favorite baseball team, losing in the playoffs. Our banter is mostly sports talk, but I also ask after his children, their families, and he shares bits and pieces of the dramas that are taking place in their lives. They live in other states, but call him every day. He tells me about going to the doctor and other errands he’s been running. A story or two from the past sneaks out every now and again.

At various points in our conversation, things get quiet, and when they do he always comes back to her.

“You know, I talk to her. Every day. That’s not crazy, is it?”

“I’m spending a lot of time working out in the yard. The house is too quiet without her there.”

“I used to cook for her when she worked, and I got pretty good. So I cooked for her when she got sick, but you know, the last while there she just couldn’t eat. I couldn’t either. I’ve lost 30 pounds you know.”

Breakfast in America. Photo by pixishared

He mentions the funeral service at least a half dozen times. I officiated it, and he can’t say “thank you” enough. He talks about how after they went to make arrangements the first time, she changed her mind and said she didn’t like the casket they picked out. But then she got too sick to go back, so the kids eventually picked out one they knew she’d like, and damn the cost. He tells me about people he wished could have been there at the service, but he remembers the flowers they sent, the cards they wrote, the phone calls they made. It’s clear that day made a real impression on him. It’s etched on his mind like some farewell scene in a movie. He’s been out to the grave a few times, but he doesn’t say much about it.

Somehow, we clear our plates and it’s time to go, me to my work, him to . . . what? I don’t know, and he may not either. The server brings our check and we fight over who’s going to pay, but he grabs it.

“You don’t have to do this with me if you’re too busy,” he says.

“No, I enjoy it. I’ll call you next week,” I reply.

“That would be great. You know, breakfast, lunch, a cup of coffee. I’m free now for most anything.”

“You know I’m praying for you, right?”

“Yeah, I need that.”

“And keep talking to her, okay? She’s not far away.”

“Okay. Thanks. Call me next week?”

“Call you next week.”

• • •

Photo 1 by Emily Maiden at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Photo 2 by pixishared at Flickr. Creative Commons License

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