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:

Debunking the Bible's Gender Binary
The World in the Dark
The Pope's Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far
When Would You Rather Be Alive?
About Adam Lee

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


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