Darwin Made Me Do It

Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” – Sam Harris , Free Will

My faith does not rest easy with me. I am vulnerable to doubts in the supernatural claims of Christian doctrine and even in the motives behind my belief in God. Part of the reason behind this is that I don’t want to be a chump wasting his Sundays to worship a God who may not exist. (These feeling are particularly acute when it comes time to pry open my checkbook and fulfill my pledge.) Maybe I would feel different if I received more tangible benefits from going to church: If it made me feel morally superior to those who don’t go (it doesn’t); if I was convinced that my religion was going to land me a place in heaven (I’m not); or if I thought my prayers were going to be answered directly (I don’t).  To the extent that I receive answers to the questions that bring me to church each Sunday, these answers do not come easy, and my faith has no strength of its own.

At the same time I take pride in having an open mind and feel that it is intellectually dishonest to shield myself from the arguments I hear, including those in favor of Atheism. So I torture myself on occasion by reading the works of non-believers whose ideas spell the destruction of my worldview, on the grounds that an unexamined faith is not worth having.

It is in this spirit that I introduce you to Sam Harris. Harris is a neuroscientist, author and a member of the “New Atheists”, aka “The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse”. Harris is a proponent of what I like to call biological determinism: the idea that we really don’t make our own choices, but that our decisions are made for us organically, and dictated by millions of years of evolution. According to Harris, “Free will is an illusion”. We are meat puppets, pre-programmed to act in ways that perpetuate our genetic material. Harris’s book called Free Will makes the case that our belief in free will is illogical, and he supports his claim in part with experimental data showing the brain makes decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them. This involved having people make decisions while connected to an MRI machine, watching the brainwaves as the decision gets made, then counting how long it takes for the subjects to register their decisions. He gets a good deal of attention for this position, which essentially means that consciousness as we know it is a delusion, and that the soul…well the soul has been written-off by his brand of science a long time ago.

It is easy to see why the claims of the New Atheists have found broad appeal. We live in a culture where we are bombarded with images and symbols designed to manipulate our buying habits and political decisions. Who doubts that the desires for social status and sexual gratification on which advertising plays are rooted somewhere in our genetic material? When I read the news each day the world sure seems violently competitive and randomly ordered.

Harris and his school argue that even our altruistic impulses can be explained in terms of the perpetuation of our genetic material. Here is quote from biologist M. T. Ghiselin:

No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. Where it is in his own interest , every organism may reasonably be expected to aid his fellows. Where he has no alternative , he submits to the yoke of servitude. Yet, given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed. [1]   


The good news is that this is does not appear to be “true”, certainly not in the scientific sense that Ghiselin aspires to.  His ideas and his approach are an excellent example of “Sciencism” , which is when science leaves its home turf, the realm of facts, and encroaches into the realm of meaning, which is the domain of philosophy and ultimately, of religion. The philosopher Mary Midgely, no believer herself, writes about this phenomenon in her book: Evolution as Religion.

Midgely points out that the Scientist fallacy is based upon a flawed concept of objectivity. Good scientists, she says, acknowledge their particular cultural and even personal biases and use this framework openly in ordering the facts their research uncovers. Ghiselin’s view of altruism, as Midgely points out, is pure fantasy. The evolutionary part is contrary the facts and even Charles Darwin, writing a century before, observed that cooperative behavior was in many cases supported by natural selection. Ghiselin, it seems, started with a particular worldview, one of brutalistic competition, and used this to organize his research and arrange his findings. In doing so, he commits the same fallacy that Christian scientists use when they try to disprove evolution: they refuse to identify their biases and perhaps unintentionally use them to determine the outcome of their research.

The fallacy of Scientism stems from the arrogant denial of our subjectivity: by pretending to be objective and free from bias, the false prophets of Scientism infuse their facts with meaning… unconsciously. This is of course ironic, given that the thrust of the bio-determinist movement seems to be the denial of consciousness, which leads us to the absurd proposition that unconsciousness itself is Sam Harris’s unconscious bias. It is no wonder that he considers the concept of fee will to be incoherent.

Interestingly, John Calvin seems to have anticipated this line of reasoning in his Institutes on the Christian Religion when he discusses the concept of predestination:

First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let them remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth.[2] 

I have long wondered if the ideas of bio-determinism were not just a modern expression of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. As the reading from Ecclesiastes tells us: “there is no new thing under the sun”. Calvin’s discussion of these matters is in many ways about the ultimate form of humility before our creator. In this quote from Calvin he refers to today’s New Testament reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“Paul clearly declares that it is only when the salvation of a remnant is ascribed to gratuitous election, we arrive at the knowledge that God saves whom he wills of his mere good pleasure, and does not pay a debt, a debt which never can be due.”  [3]

Calvin’s project is arriving at knowledge of God, and Calvin, who was trained as a philosopher, lawyer and theologian, recognizes the limitations of this enterprise; he acknowledges our profound subjectivity. I suppose you could say that Harris’s argument is similarly humbling: he finds the concept of free will to be incoherent after all. But Harris would have us be humbled before Nature, which he substitutes for Calvin’s God; and, as I pointed out earlier, Harris’s position, unlike Calvin’s, includes a presumption of objectivity, of scientific detachment, and this is where it falls short.

Theologians like Paul Tillich tell us that it is necessary to start with a Doctrine of Man if we are going to answer the questions raised by philosophy. A Doctrine of Man answers:  Who are we? What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? This framework does not need to be unchangeable, but without it, without the reference points of our subjectivity, reality is incoherent. Harris’s questions on the nature of consciousness are clearly within the realm of philosophy, but he misses this point and treats science itself as though it were philosophy, as though the facts and data he discovers impart meaning on their own. Science becomes a source of meaning for Harris and this is where it crosses the line and becomes his religion, whether he knows it or not.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I don’t have time to get into a discussion of Calvin’s doctrine on predestination other than to say that I think it is one of the fullest expressions of Divine sovereignty and human limitation that we know. Within this framework and the belief system that our church maintains, my doubts coexist with my belief, and I see my faith not as a crutch but as a muscle:  a muscle that I need to nourish and exercise through prayer and study, even, or maybe especially, when the study is painful.

It is within this framework of subjectivity, which is God’s gift to each of us, that I understand faith to be not something passive that happens to me, but rather as an act of will.  So how will I answer Sam Harris’s question about whether this will is freely mine or whether I am under some divine or biological compulsion to bow my head and pray? I answer it in the same way I would answer the question of whether or not I am going to heaven:

God knows.

[1] M. T. Ghiselin , The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex (Berkeley, Cal., University of California Press, 1974), p. 247.  .

[2] Calvin, John (2009-02-15). Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 22, Section 1.

[3] Ibid


Will Ingraham is an Elder in the Scarborough Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, NY.

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