The Case for a Creator: Why We Lost the Vietnam War

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

In this section, J.P. Moreland (with the help of softball questions obligingly lobbed by Lee Strobel) continues to pour scorn on the idea that the brain could produce consciousness. As in the last installment, his rhetorical strategy is to attack only the weakest and most simplistic hypothesis of how this could occur – to set up a straw man that he can easily push over – and when he’s done this, he declares victory and concludes that he’s proven human beings must have souls, factory-installed by Jesus at the time of conception.

Strobel has asked what the implications would be if we had no souls. Moreland responds thusly:

“…there would be no free will. That’s because matter is completely governed by the laws of nature. Take any physical object… For instance, a cloud,” he said. “It’s just a material object, and its movement is completely governed by the laws of air pressure, wind movement, and the like. So if I’m a material object, all of the things I do are fixed by my environment, my genetics, and so forth.
    That would mean I’m not really free to make choices. Whatever’s going to happen is already rigged by my makeup and environment. So how could you hold me responsible for my behavior if I wasn’t free to choose how I would act?” [p.256]

In this passage, Moreland sets up a dilemma: Either my choices are determined by me, or they’re determined by the sum total of my causal history and the natural laws operating on me at that moment. It sounds like a convincing argument; but his mistake is in thinking that these are competing positions.

Moreland’s narrow and restrictive view of free will requires thinking of himself as a point source of action, a supernatural locus spontaneously originating decisions with no prior cause. In this view, any reason for our actions can only override free will, because reasons are necessarily enmeshed in the causal history of the world. But human beings clearly do have reasons for our actions – in many cases, those reasons are clearly visible. We have a nature, not chosen by us, which primes us to act in certain ways. In Moreland’s view, this is a frightening and disturbing idea, for all that it’s obviously true.

But what if we draw the boundaries of the self somewhat more broadly? What if I consider myself to be a complex nexus of character traits, dispositions, emotions and reasoning capacity, an animal shaped by evolution and also a human shaped by culture? In that case, the causes that determine my decisions aren’t things pressing on me from outside, but part of me, part of the nature that I have. The laws of nature, as well, are not external impositions upon me but simply facts about the way the organic machine that is my brain works.

Moreland’s dilemma, therefore, is a false one. We’re not something separate from the unfolding of the universe’s physical laws. That notion implies that they could “prefer” one outcome while I prefer another, and I could struggle against them in a battle that I would inevitably lose. But that’s clearly absurd. I choose what I will, and the laws of nature are part of the explanation for why I had that will in the first place – and this is true no matter what I choose. (See my post series “On Free Will” for more on this view.)

What Moreland seeks is a kind of radical freedom where a person’s choices aren’t determined by their genetics, their environment, anything in their personal history, or even by the structure of their brain. So what does determine them? The only possible answer, in his view, is that nothing determines them, which is the same as saying that they’re random. But how is this an improvement? If our free acts have no causal history to explain them, but arise ex nihilo without rhyme or reason, we haven’t established moral responsibility but eliminated it. How can you hold someone responsible for their behavior if their decisions are as random and reasonless as spins of a roulette wheel? Moral responsibility in that scenario would be as futile as blaming the wheel for landing on double 0 when you were betting on black. It’s the materialist view, which roots our decisions firmly in the causal weave of the world, that provides the most solid basis for true moral responsibility. When a person errs, we can find the cause of their wrong decision, and then change the way they make decisions – through persuasion, through punishment, or through any other method – so that they will not be caused to make similar bad choices in the future.

“So if the materialists are right, kiss free will good-bye. In their view, we’re just very complicated computers that behave according to the laws of nature and the programming we receive. But, Lee, obviously they’re wrong – we do have free will. We all know that deep down inside.” [p.256]

For a book that claims to be based on science, this is a very peculiar mode of argument. Compare: “My colleagues in the academy, my eleven-dimensional supersymmetric string theory explaining dark matter and unifying gravity with the other physical forces is true. I don’t have any evidence, but you all know it deep down inside.”

“You already know I’m right” may be an effective argument for Strobel’s intended readership: the Christian cheering section who already agrees with him and needs only the thinnest excuse to start nodding vigorously. But to convince people who don’t already agree with everything you believe, you need hard evidence – you need science. Strobel and Moreland don’t even attempt to provide that here. Obviously, a hard determinist would say that this “feeling” of personal freedom is an illusion, that we’re determined in advance to feel that way just as all our other feelings and desires are determined. Moreland has nothing to counter that explanation, which is why he retreats into bald assertion.

To close out the chapter, Moreland offers what he thinks is evidence for the soul. He tells an unlikely story of how the Pentagon, during the Vietnam War, was supposedly basing its military strategy on B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Because of this, he says, they believed that victory was certain if we dropped enough bombs, because eventually the negative stimuli of the bombing had to condition the North Vietnamese army into surrender:

“It didn’t work… [b]ecause there was more to the Vietnamese than their physical brains responding to stimuli. They have souls, desires, feelings and beliefs, and they could make free choices to suffer and to stand firm for their convictions despite our attempt to condition them by our bombing.” [p.256]

With this passage, Moreland has not only dodged the obvious counterarguments, he’s sprinting far past them into the distance, leaving a curl of dust as he vanishes over the horizon. He argues as if Skinnerian behaviorism is the only possible theory of non-supernatural decision-making, and if it’s shown to be false, then we have no alternative but to conclude we have souls, God exists, and Jesus died for our sins.

?! Has it ever crossed his mind that there’s more than one possible hypothesis to explain how a physical brain makes decisions? Does he really think there’s no materialistic way to account for the obvious fact, denied by no one, that some people hold fast to a chosen cause despite suffering for it? You might as well say that I should be able to make a computer do whatever I tell it by sending electric shocks through its CPU, and if that doesn’t work, it proves that my computer is run by magical elves that are immune to electricity.

Since I apparently need to, permit to recount the obvious truths about human nature which Moreland fantasizes that materialists deny. Human beings are not flatworms responding blindly to stimuli, but reasoning creatures with a highly developed neocortex capable of abstract goals and long-term planning. We do possess the same basic drives – hunger, lust, aversion to pain – as all other animals, but we, unlike most species, can hold those drives in check by using our ability to anticipate the future, delaying immediate gratification in the name of achieving a larger goal. Nothing about this is incompatible with the brain being a physical machine.

Humans also aren’t the only creatures capable of this. Consider the famous experiment where one monkey voluntarily starved itself, in one case for days on end, rather than pull a chain that would dispense food but would also give an electric shock to a monkey in an adjacent cage. Skinner’s behaviorism fares poorly at explaining this. Does this mean that monkeys must also have souls?

Actually, he does think that – and the way I know this is the strangest part of this book yet. A bit later in the chapter, Moreland veers off into an utterly bizarre tangent about whether animals have souls. He says they do (which we know because “[i]n several places the Bible uses the word ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ when discussing animals” [p.262]). But according to him, the difference between us is that humans are capable of “free moral action”, while animal souls are “determined” (those monkeys sounded a lot like they were performing free moral actions to me); and also, “the animal soul ceases to exist at death” [p.263].

For a book that claims to be based on science, this sudden detour into angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological fantasy is as jarringly misplaced as it would be to find a passage on voodoo rituals inserted into the middle of a calculus text. It confirms, again, that what we have here is not an actual recounting of what science has discovered, but an exercise in Christian theology dressed up in just enough scientific language to fool people who don’t know the difference.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    “So what does determine them? The only possible answer, in his view, is that nothing determines them, which is the same as saying that they’re random. But how is this an improvement?”

    Granted, it’s been a while since I (a monist) have argued about dualism* but, unless my eyes deceive me, you go off the rails here. He’s not arguing for randomness, he’s arguing for a soul (one which, according to wikipedia “…a soul is said to make decisions and override physical causality”. A “you” behind “you”, if that makes any sense).

    “Moreland veers off into an utterly bizarre tangent about whether animals have souls. He says they do…But according to him, the difference between us is that humans are capable of ‘free moral action’, while animal souls are ‘determined’…and also, ‘the animal soul ceases to exist at death’”

    Which is close enough to the “simulation” part of my footnote (in this case, as “They have souls, but they don’t have souls.”) that I’m having a mild case of déjà vu.

    “For a book that claims to be based on science, this sudden detour into angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological fantasy is as jarringly misplaced as it would be to find a passage on voodoo rituals inserted into the middle of a calculus text.”

    That would be pretty awesome. I might have taken calculus, then. It’s like being dragged to an “deep, emotional film about relationships, with subtittles” by a girlfriend and, halfway through, for no reason at all…boobies!

    * Dualists lost me when I pointed out that a smattering of other species, to a lesser degree, do the same things we do (the kind of things that we define as “human”, one example you provided later on) and the replies I got, paraphrased, tended to be “…oh, those are just simulations of consciousness/morality/planning/free will/etc”, at which point I would have held up a mirror to their faces, but the interweb, sadly, has limitations.

  • Bob Carlson

    In this section, J.P. Moreland (with the help of softball questions obligingly lobbed by Lee Strobel) continues to pour scorn on the idea that the brain could produce consciousness.

    Susan Blackmore argues that the brain doesn’t produce consciousness but rather the illusion of consciousness…as well as the illusion of free will.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    My computer actually is run by magical elves. Tempermental, mischievous little buggers.

  • David

    Of course we can ‘choose’ to do what we ‘prefer’, but when did we ‘choose’ what it is that we ‘prefer’? – Barbara Smoker

  • Tacroy

    It’s like being dragged to an “deep, emotional film about relationships, with subtittles” by a girlfriend and, halfway through, for no reason at all…boobies!

    Hur hur hur, Freudian slip.

    Having not read the book, I have to wonder if they ever gave a real, rigorous definition of free will. If they haven’t, that’s the root of all this BS right there – if you leave your terms undefined, you can say whatever you want about them.

    If they did define “free will”, I kinda wonder how they worded it in order to avoid granting free will to things like electrons and radioactive decay.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Tacroy “Hur hur hur, Freudian slip.”
    Erm…well, that’s pretty weak, as Freudian tits go.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    It’s been pointed out here before that most (if not all) ethical systems are independent of a libertarian free will concept. For utilitarians (such as, I believe, our host) moral actions are the ones which maximize happiness and minimize suffering (or those which follow rules designed to do the same, or any of the other variations on utilitarianism). For Rawlsians, moral actions are those which are in line with the social contract. Kant’s ethics are the closest I can think of to demanding free will: he thought that moral rules only applied to autonomous agents, but that’s a totally different kettle of noumena from libertarian free will. You just don’t need free will to make a moral system.

  • TEP
    “So what does determine them? The only possible answer, in his view, is that nothing determines them, which is the same as saying that they’re random. But how is this an improvement?”

    Granted, it’s been a while since I (a monist) have argued about dualism* but, unless my eyes deceive me, you go off the rails here. He’s not arguing for randomness, he’s arguing for a soul (one which, according to wikipedia “…a soul is said to make decisions and override physical causality”. A “you” behind “you”, if that makes any sense).

    Even if there is a ‘soul’, this changes nothing. It makes no difference if our personalities, memories, attitudes etc are all bound up in some sort of mystical entity rather than in neurons – the fact is, if our actions are caused by any of these, then they are deterministic. If our actions are determined by the state of our ‘soul’, then we also have no ‘free will’. The only way we can be ‘free’ is if they’re not caused by any of the things that make us who we are [personality, memories etc] – i.e. the soul doesn’t determine our actions, and they are instead random.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    It’s probably been mentioned on here before, by Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Freedom Evolves are absolutely excellent on this subject. Dennett really takes apart the arguments for indeterministic free will.

  • Chris

    Moreland also contradicts himself (which is not surprising). First he claims (or very strongly implies) that the soul is the source of free will, then later claims that animal have souls… but no free will.

    If the soul isn’t the source of free will, then Moreland is in no better position than the strawman materialists he is trying to debunk.

  • paradoctor

    I think that the ‘material’ of ‘materialism’ is not exactly the electrons, quarks, photons and gluons of particle physics; it is instead the ‘evidential’. It is that which makes a documentable difference; whereas the ‘immaterial’ is that which we can dismiss from the argument without loss of knowlege. In this sense materialism is simply the skeptical insistence upon evidence for assertions. If there were reliably reproducible evidence for ectoplasm, then ectoplasm would be material, even if it were not made of electrons, quarks, photons or gluons.

    I also think there is a third alternative to determinism and indeterminism; I call it ‘self-determinism’. Determinate systems are ruled ‘from outside’; indeterminate systems are not ruled at all; self-determinate systems rule themselves.

    According to self-determinism, humans are indeed determined by physical law; but this determination is too chaotic for real-time prediction and control; and this is because there are emergent laws for humans which reference humans. The physical laws yield self-referential biological and psychological laws; and from this self-reference noncomputability arises.

    Call the referent of self-reference a soul, or not, as you please; it makes no difference. But note that not only humans are self-determining; so is the cosmos. Does it too have a soul?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    When I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, letting go of the idea of an immaterial soul that somehow caused my free will was one of the hardest things to let go of. But writings by materialists (Ebonmuse, among others) persuaded me: not that free will isn’t a tricky and still largely unanswered question, but that immaterialism doesn’t answer it. It’s like the First Cause argument for God: it just begs the question, sets the question back a notch so we don’t have to think about it too hard. Even if we do have an immaterial soul — how does that answer the problem of free will? We still have the problem: does our soul base its decisions on the processing of existing information and a cost-benefit analysis thereof, or is it essentially random? And if the former, is there still a way to see that process as free will?

    And the Vietnam argument is just plain silly. “This one particular theory of physical cause and effect turned out to be mistaken: therefore, physical cause and effect could not possibly be at work.” Piffle. Any number of entirely materialist theories of human psychology can explain why people choose to stick with their convictions despite negative feedback. (The theory of rationalization, and the fact that people are more likely to stick with positions the more they’ve committed to them, leaps to mind.)

    I have to disagree, however, with the idea that consciousness is an “illusion.” I think we can say that consciousness is a biological product of the brain — and still say that it’s real. After all, thoughts and emotions are also biological products of the brain… and we wouldn’t say that they’re illusions.

  • paradoctor

    Greta @ 12: you ask “does our soul base its decisions on the processing of existing information and a cost-benefit analysis thereof, or is it essentially random?” There is a third option; the soul processes not just existing information, rationally analyzed, but also idiosyncratic hunches and habits. That precisely is self-determinism; the soul can be understood and even predicted, but only on its own terms.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    “It didn’t work… [b]ecause there was more to the Vietnamese than their physical brains responding to stimuli. They have souls, desires, feelings and beliefs, and they could make free choices to suffer and to stand firm for their convictions despite our attempt to condition them by our bombing.”

    Wait a minute! I thought the Vietnamese were supposed to be godless commies!

  • Samuel Skinner

    Obviously God hardened their hearts. Or Satan. Or Ho Chi Minh.

    “self-determinate systems rule themselves. ”

    Only the universe would qualify. And technically it is a false diconomy. You can get a large number of determinate systems which just need an external push for a large number of internal changes.

    ” and from this self-reference noncomputability arises. ”

    Given the fact humans can predict the behavior of other humans, I wouldn’t say it is “noncomputable”. It is fuzzy and messy, but it is computable.

  • paradoctor

    Samuel @ 15:
    Yes, only the universe qualifies as fully self-determined. But subsystems may be partially self-determined. So long as causation curls into loops – as it does in all biology and psychology – then there is at least some self-determination.

    Humans are partially computable by other humans, but not in detail, and sometimes details count. This issue of computation of course fades into a political issue; that’s why it’s called “free” will.

  • http://paulsoth.livejournal.com Paul Soth

    Of course when talking about the concept of Free Will, Christian apologists tend to avoid the paradox that arises when one factors in the existence of an all-powerful and all-knowing being into the equation. After all, if God already knows and allows every event that will happen in the future (by his design, no less), then that means that all living things are simply following a script and are powerless to change it. This was one of the bigger arguments that led me to my de-conversion.

  • http://rejistania.wordpress.com Rejistania

    When I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, letting go of the idea of an immaterial soul that somehow caused my free will was one of the hardest things to let go of.

    That is odd. I mean, to me, the concept of a soul was never actually clear. Even as a child I noticed that the free will of people seemed to be impaired by things like alcohol, coffee (or rather: its lack) and tiredness. Can souls get drunk, tired, or cranky because they lack their morning caffeine? I am very happy that I found out that I am not alone on this.

    @ebonmuse: I am surprised that you can read all that dualistic non-information without writing ‘[citation needed]‘ (or worse) after every sentence.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @ Rejistania: Nice observation about souls and alcohol, coffee, drunk, tired, etc. One thing that made me give up the idea of a soul as incoherent was age. Do souls age? I mean, if you die when you’re 75, are you 75 in heaven? Or is the soul always “in the prime of life” after death? What about newborn infants? Are they self-aware in heaven, even though on earth they weren’t? It just makes no sense if you actually try to think about it.

    My ex-wife told me that when she was little she thought souls hung around your neck like an invisible necktie. I think that makes about as much sense as anything when it comes to souls! lol

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    I mean, if you die when you’re 75, are you 75 in heaven?

    An Islamic troll I came across elsewhere claims that everyone is 30 in heaven. But I want to be 29, so wouldn’t that be hell for me (so near yet so far)

  • Eurekus

    ‘But to convince people who don’t already agree with everything you believe, you need hard evidence – you need science’.

    That’s what convinced me there was is God. But it took a concerted effort on my part to overcome my desire that we were created by a loving God. Rationality eventually won.

    ‘It confirms, again, that what we have here is not an actual recounting of what science has discovered, but an exercise in Christian theology dressed up in just enough scientific language to fool people who don’t know the difference’.

    I don’t think it fools many. Most people are willingly ‘ignorant’ because they’ve been brainwashed as children by their brainwashed parents that they’re nothing without Jesus. They just use this book as an excuse to maintain their belief. This is so pathetically sad, I should know, I was once one of them.

    All of Christanity is nothing but an evil cult, this book emphasises it. As rationally minded people we should stand against it for the good of our species.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Granted, it’s been a while since I (a monist) have argued about dualism* but, unless my eyes deceive me, you go off the rails here. He’s not arguing for randomness, he’s arguing for a soul (one which, according to wikipedia “…a soul is said to make decisions and override physical causality”.

    My point in this argument, Modus, was that there’s a dilemma that Strobel hasn’t evaded. When a person makes a decision, either that decision was fully determined by earlier causes, or it wasn’t. But if it wasn’t, then why did they make that decision and not a different one? The only possible answer is that it was random, and this analysis applies regardless of whether one believes in a supernatural soul. Greta Christina and TEP made similar points in their comments.

  • Tacroy

    Do souls age? I mean, if you die when you’re 75, are you 75 in heaven? Or is the soul always “in the prime of life” after death? What about newborn infants? Are they self-aware in heaven, even though on earth they weren’t? It just makes no sense if you actually try to think about it.

    It’s even worse than that – which you goes to heaven? You are not the same person you were thirty years ago, or twenty, or ten, or five minutes ago; your “soul”, whatever it is, changes every nanosecond to encompass new information that your senses have gathered. We just think that we are one consistent individual because any changes to ourselves happen gradually.

    So what happens to the kid soul you used to have? Sure, the body is still around, and there’s still someone who calls themselves by that child’s name, but that child is just as dead as an old man who had a heart attack in his sleep; the only difference is that one extra person remembers the child.

    If you die and go to heaven, do you meet yourself when you were two, three, thirteen, fifteen, forty? Does the fifty-year-old you who had an affair with the secretary end up in hell, or the ten year old in purgatory? All those souls are just as dead as you, and have been dead for longer.

    And it doesn’t even have to be a year type of thing. When I was a child, I read somewhere that people could wake up for five minutes while asleep, and not remember doing it in the morning. I remember thinking to myself sometimes as I was falling asleep, “huh, the me that’s thinking this will be gone tomorrow, because I won’t remember thinking this”. And I don’t – I remember doing it in general, but I don’t remember any specific instances. Have all those unique souls gone to heaven too? After all, the meat that enclosed them let them go a couple of minutes after they formed.

    The whole idea is just ridiculously messy. No intelligent designer would have come up with such a system.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Apparently this book wasn’t written for Calvinists…

    Thanks to the doctrine of election, you might as well not have free will – it doesn’t even matter!

  • frankjg

    All thinking including our will (free) and desires are dependent on the physical brain. If you are a normal thinking individual and I hit you on the head damaging your brain inside you head , so that you do not even remember your name or what free will is, what do you think will be the state of your soul or consciousness, if any ?. Will your soul be the same as before I hit your head? Of course NOT.


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