Being the Real You

Series: Philosophical Figurings
Tags: neuroscience, postmodernism, existentialism, determinism, free will, science
April 5, 2014

    While at Duke Divinity School, I got a bit of a reputation as being the student who knew something about neuroscience. With the birth of my daughter, I’m also rather publicly struggling with what it means to be a father, and especially being the father of a daughter. So when a neuroscientist came out saying that there is no difference between men and women, I suddenly got a lot of questions from my old classmates.

    As I read through the article—I didn’t read the original speach—I was reminded of the following lines from “The Devil’s Advocate”:

    Kevin: Cut the shit, Dad! Why lawyers?

    John: Because the law, my boy, puts us into everything. It’s the ultimate backstage pass.

    Neuroscience seems to be the ultimate backstage pass for contempoary philosophy. Pop philosophy appeals to neuroscience for all its answers (eg: The Believing Brain, The Spiritual Brain).

    Unfortunately, the problem is that scientists are often poorly trained as philosophers, and philsophers struggle to properly understand neuroscience. For one example, the popular idea that neuroscience disproves free will requires a naive concept of “free will”. For an example the other direction, I’d suggest you pick up David Eagleman’s Incognito, which doesn’t directly dig at philosophers, but is certainly interested in correcting some popular academic misconceptions.

    Neuroscience: The New Hope

    Now, there are ways in which neuroscience has drastically helped philosophy. Before neuroscience explored the connection between the mind and the body with such exactitude, it was easy to imagine ourselves as immaterial angel souls tangentially attached to slimy animal bodies. It was easy to argue that a human had its purest thoughts and its willpower in some sacred, mystical plane, and they acted upon the body through rationality to try to wrangle the irrational and irracible body into submission. Neuroscience is showing, however, that anything a theologian might want to stash in a Heavenly realm is actually mutable through purely physical changes. This has created an “immaterial mind of the gaps”, which is dwindling in capacity and credit as neuroscience improves its understanding of the brain, and that mind of the gaps has largely been surrendered by philosophers as unviable.

    This fact creates an issue for those who don’t like predeterminism. If the mind is isomorphic to the brain, and the laws of physics that determine the behavior of the brain are determinitsic, then the mind is itself deterministic. This means that while we may be retaining free will in a more nuanced and philosophical sense, it is also possible to calculate your next mind state given the history of your previous mind states. This means that God knows what your next mind state will be given your previous mind state, and that goes back all the way to your conception and will go forward all the way to your death. Therefore, God knows exactly what the course of your life will be, and what your choices will be. That reality was determined by the state of the universe at the moment of your conception. (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”, Jeremiah 1:5). If God knows all your choices, and knows all the choices of all the people in the universe, then aren’t we talking about predeterminism? Aren’t we talking about irresistible grace? Aren’t we, ultimately, also talking about predestination?

    To shake this argument, you would have to show that there is space within the brain for nondeterministic effects. Quantum mechanics does not help you here unless you can show how quantum mechanics impacts the macroscopic world. (Which, BTW, may well be impossible.) In any case, you should be able to come up with an experiment to demonstrate the indeterminancy, which would probably score you a Nobel Prize. Until someone does, we can tenatively declare Calvin to win this round.

    The Arminians Strike Back

    Yet the Arminians can still rest easy with the fact that they still hold the pastoral field. The nuanced view of free will tells us that even though predeterminism may be the underlying reality, our experience of reality in the day-to-day is that we have agency. Indeed, we do have agency, in that what decisions we make impact reality: what decision we make may be predetermined, but we still have to make the decision, and our future will reflect the consequences of the decisions that we make. This means that we can’t throw a fit and say, “Well, fine, if my decisions are predetermined, then I guess I just don’t have to decide.” That’s a rather adolescent reaction to the reality of predeterminisim, and it’s simply not taking seriously the fact that, one way or another, you are having to decide.

    I think the problem comes from confusing predeterminism with Greek ideas of destiny. There’s an idea of destiny as being an inescapable curse: that no matter how far you run or how you try to escape, the gods will get you in the end. So Oedipus was destined to marry his mother, and no amount of running or struggle would let him escape that destiny. The future was set, and any effort to change the future was futile.

    Although we have to grant predeterminism, this does not mean that we have to grant destiny being a foreign imposition upon us. What predeterminism says is that God will know what choices you will make: this does not take away your ability to make choices, any more than knowing the outcome of a basketball game takes away the choices of the players when I watch the replay. Within time, there is free will (in the more nuanced sense), and we are obliged to exercise our agency. It’s simply that God is effectively watching the game in replay.

    So, as beings within time, we need to live as though we have free will (because we do). Who we are and what we do matters: that’s why God cared enough to come into time as the Son. But we can also rest confident in the fact that God knows how the whole thing plays out, and He knows that at the end, Creation is still good.

    The Return of the Self

    So even if God (and physics) knows our future, we still have agency to act within time and within our lives. We get to be ourselves. But this brings us back to the question of who that self is. Professor Rippon, the neuroscientist who “claims male and female brains only differ because of the relentless ‘drip, drip, drip’ of gender stereotyping”, had these quotes:

    “The bottom line is that saying there are differences in male and female brains is just not true. There is pretty compelling evidence that any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology,” said Prof Rippon.


    “Children learn these ‘rules’ of how to be a boy or girl at a very young age, via marketing, media and those around them. It can be upsetting to the child if their interests do not conform and can prevent them from being the people they really are.”

    I’m not a neuroscientist who studies gender differences, so I am very open to being corrected by someone who is, but I simply don’t know the “pretty compelling evidence” of nurture versus nature that Rippon is citing. I’m cynnical that gender differences are purely attributable to social training, however: testosterone increases aggression, which we know because when people take testosterone, they become more aggressive. Men have more testosterone than women, and are more aggressive. Are we really to accept that, despite the increased testosterone in men, their disporportionate aggression is purely a result of social conditioning?

    Rippon could point out that she was talking about “male and female brains”, and the biochemical milieu of the brain isn’t what she was discussing. Except that the whole point of talking about “male and female brains” is to talk about boys' and girls' minds, and viewing the brain as a mechanical device distinct from its biochemical milieu is as silly as talking about the mechanics of liver without considering the juicy stuff that it processes. That maneuver would be a shell game.

    John Eldredge and other evangelical Christians seem to really want reality to be strongly gendered, but I just don’t see the evidence backing them up. At the same time, the claim that there are no behavioral differences between men (on the mean) and women (on the mean) also seems to be false to fact.

    More interesting in all of this is the claim that cultural influences “can prevent [people] from being the people they really are.” Where would someone hide the person that they really are? Do they have their real selves locked up in the basement? This whole way of talking is a leftover of the idea that there exists some ephemeral “real self” somewhere that is being limited by the body and brain—an idea that neuroscience itself debunked. There is only one real you, and it is the person reading this article right now. Yesterday has ceased to be, and tomorrow will never arrive, and there is no more or less to you than who you are.

    This is good news, because it means that there is nothing stopping you from changing except yourself—and you can work on you. In fact, you are the only thing that you can work on in this world, so you’re lucky that there is no external imposition upon your identity. It would truly be tragic if you were an angel anchored to an ugly creation, and it would be just as tragic if God declared creation good and then the alien human will wrecked it by failing to be our “real selves”. We are entirely and eternally part and parcel of that creation that God declared good, each and all a part of God’s good plan from creation. And that’s good news.

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