gazzaniga cover

As John Calvin used to say, all truth is God’s truth, so we should not be surprised to see glimpses of that truth in unexpected places–incomplete, distorted, or fractured though it may be. (For Calvin’s extended treatment on this, see his Institutes, II.2.xii-xvii)

That thought kept coming to mind as I recently read Michael Gazzaniga’s book, Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (HarperCollins, 2011). Gazzaniga is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UC Santa Barbara, president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, and a member or director of a half-dozen other projects, think-tanks, academies, and institutions that research and study the brain and its functions. He has been a leading figure in this realm for the past few decades, and I’m not going to pretend that I can fully grasp half of what he talks about in his books–but this one caught my eye because of the title and subject matter.

I find myself frequently discussing the topic of free will with people, and those conversations tend to always revolve around the teachings of Scripture and the framework(s) of philosophical inquiry. The chance to see what a field of study like modern neuroscience had to say about human behavior, free will, and responsibility intrigued me, and was rewarded for having spent time with this book.

This isn’t a book review, per se, but I will note that Gazzaniga’s work is quite readable for the neuroscience laity (of which I am one), and despite being rather technical at some points, he writes in a way that communicates his overall point clearly. That overall point is what I want to explore briefly, because it seemed to me that what Gazzaniga propounded via neuroscience regarding the concept of free will is, in many ways, a similar concept to what Reformed theology has long articulated. Once more, if all truth is God’s truth, then this may be interesting but shouldn’t be surprising.

The main burden of Gazzaniga’s work is to demonstrate that while “free will” (in a neurological sense) is an illusion, it does not mean that we are not responsible for our actions. He summarizes his thesis like this: “We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe.” (p. 2, italics original)

By “determined universe”, Gazzaniga is not hinting at the providential workings of a sovereign God, but at the governing processes of the physical world. His research attempts to show that (nearly) all of our neurological functions happen at the subconscious and mechanistic levels, meaning that we don’t even “decide” to do the things that we think we “decide” to do. We cannot help but to act the way in which we have acted, no matter how much our mind creates a post hoc illusion of having chosen that particular action. Despite this, Gazzaniga argues, we are responsible agents, and he discusses the place of law within a society composed of individuals who cannot have acted in a way other than the way in which they acted.

I’m not suggesting that this book was Reformed in its approach to anthropology, but this main thesis seemed to broadly reflect the same approach that Reformed theology takes towards the concepts of free will and human responsibility. That view can be summarized like this: despite the fact that our will has become enslaved to sin, and cannot help but to sin, we are nevertheless responsible for our actions and will be held accountable for them.

With Adam’s rebellion, he and all his posterity have been plunged into sin, and the faculty of our will has become  corrupted and perverted, rendering us enslaved to sin. In this state, it is not possible for us not to sin (non posse  non peccare). Reformed theology, however, distinguishes between the freedom of coercion and the freedom of necessity. We are free in the former sense, meaning that we are not forced to sin against our will. We are not free in the latter sense, meaning that the faculty of our will, corrupted as it is, necessarily produces sinful thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes.

None of this, however, removes our guilt because we are also responsible agents. “The devil made me do it!” just doesn’t fly as an excuse. In other words, just as some of Gazzaniga’s work demonstrates in the field of neuroscience, the tension exists in recognizing that we are bound (literally) to act in a certain way, yet we are also responsible for those actions.

In the Westminster Confession, this is set out as follows: Adam and Eve’s sin “wholly defiled…all the parts and faculties of soul and body”. This corruption has been “conveyed to their posterity…whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to evil.” Yet “every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God…doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner.” (Chapter VI.1-6).

Likewise, the Canons of Dort, in the Third and Fourth Head of doctrine, note that we all “are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto”, but likewise still responsible for that guilt and deserving of condemnation.

In short, the notion that we are simultaneously unable to act in a way other than what we have acted yet remain responsible for that action may be a new thesis in the field of neuroscience, but it is a paradigm found woven throughout Reformed theology and grounded in the truths of Scripture. This reminds us of the severity of sin and the need for a salvation that is extra nos (outside of ourselves). We cannot change the nature of our will on our own, yet unless that nature is changed we remain guilty and subject to sentence from the Judge.

As Paul said, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 7:24-8:2)


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