Reengineering Human Nature

“For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

—Galatians 5:17

“In order to cure most of the ills of human life, I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. Let the whole species possess naturally an equal diligence with that which many individuals are able to attain by habit and reflection; and the most beneficial consequences, without any alloy of ill, is the immediate and necessary result of this endowment.”

—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779

In 2006, I said the following in “Putting Humanity on a Pedestal“:

…in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.

Since I first wrote that, I’ve been thinking some more about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this was, if anything, an understatement. With a little work, this could be one of the most important arguments in the atheist’s rhetorical quiver, one that would give us a virtually unanswerable talking point against nearly every form of theism.

If you’ve spent any time reading apologetic literature, you’ve probably come across the theologians who conceive of human free will as a blank slate, a mathematical point lacking any internal structure, such that not even God could influence our decisions without canceling our free will altogether. Curiously, many of these same theologians also insist on a doctrine called original sin, which claims that our decisions are biased toward evil – a contradiction that usually seems to pass them by without notice.

That contradiction aside, it’s easy to see why theologians insist that free will is a blank slate. They want to claim that God is good, yet there’s a huge amount of evil in the world that needs to be accounted for. The easiest way out is to put the blame on humans: insisting that God endowed human beings with free will so that we could achieve genuine fellowship with him, but that we went astray and brought sin into the world (and some go so far as to blame all natural evil on human sin). This serves to justify continued belief in God as the creator of all things while still holding him guiltless for evil and suffering.

But this claim, as vehemently maintained as it is, is obviously wrong. As any observer of human nature knows, free will is not a blank slate. Human beings come into the world with an innate set of psychological predispositions, desires, and tendencies to act in certain ways. In short, there is such a thing as human nature. And this leads to the obvious followup question: If there is a god who created humans, and if he created us with a particular nature, why did he make the choice he did rather than creating us with a different nature?

This question takes on special importance when you consider that, according to the moral rules traditionally handed down by religion, God has created human beings with strong inclinations to do things that he doesn’t want us to do (the original-sin idea again). For instance, he cautions us against gluttony, yet creates us with an appetite for rich, sweet, fattening foods. He enjoins us not to commit adultery, but gives us sex drives that are unpredictable and uncontrollable. He warns us against wrath, but creates short-tempered people who get irrationally angry. He threatens doom for homosexuality, yet creates people who have homosexual desires.

I’ve tried this argument on a few occasions, and what I’ve found is that most theists react with bewilderment. They fail to comprehend the question, or insist that humans are the only kind of creature God could possibly have created, or claim that God could not have improved us without making tradeoffs that would have resulted in an even worse outcome (the absurdity of applying the concept of “tradeoff” to an omnipotent being is something else that never occurs to them).

Well, I think we can help them out. In an upcoming series of posts, I’ll propose a series of imagination-stretching exercises – thought experiments which show how human nature could have been different, in ways that would improve it without any negative tradeoffs. These changes, while not depriving us of free will, would lead to a world with a greater sense of morality and smaller amounts of sin – and after all, isn’t that what we’re told God wants?

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://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    That sounds like a really interesting idea! I look forward to the future posts.

  • Valhar2000

    With a little work, this could be one of the most important arguments in the atheist’s rhetorical quiver, one that would give us a virtually unanswerable talking point against nearly every form of theism.

    I’ve tried this argument on a few occasions, and what I’ve found is that most theists react with bewilderment. They fail to comprehend the question

    Bewilderment, that is the key. They will be able to answer these arguments, extensively and with glee. Whether those answers will be any more substantial that the word salad they currently provide is a different matter.

  • Devin

    I look forward to the rest of this series. It sounds similar to some posts you’ve done before, though. : )

  • Quath

    I think this could be a tough discussion. First there is the idea of free will which is very philosophically loaded. And then there is the idea that God stacks the deck against us by the way he creates us. The second one can easily be rationalized as “God provides us challenges so we can strive to overcome them.”

    So I will be interested to see hiw this develops.

  • Herb

    Reminds me of Ricky Gervais, who wondered: If God exists, why did he make me an atheist?

  • Dan L.

    Not sure how effective this line of argument will actually be, but I’m looking forward to seeing how you develop it.

    I’ve tried a similar line of argument before, using the notions of free will, God’s omniscience, and original sin.

    We all know the story, obviously: Adam and Eve hanging out in Eden, snake tricks Eve, Eve tempts Adam, and that introduces evil into the world.

    But the snake was, presumably, acting according to its nature, which was specified by God himself. The snake couldn’t help but try to trick Eve because that’s how God made him. And God MUST have known this before hand. Furthermore, he must have made Eve in such a way that she would be susceptible to these wiles (and must have known this before ever making her) and made Adam in such a way as to be susceptible to temptation (again, knowing beforehand what the outcome could be).

    Basically, it has the flavor of building a Rube Goldberg machine that throws baseballs at windows and complaining when broken glass gets everywhere. Which seems pretty obvious to me; if you don’t want Adam to disobey you, don’t set up a chain of events which you already know (through omniscience) will ultimately cause him to disobey you.

    Never found a theist who seemed even remotely phased by this argument. As usual, they respond by quibbling about the nature of “God” and “evil” and “free will.”

  • Tacroy

    I’ve made a similar argument before, but I guess no one listens to me :(

    Basically: “free will” is a red herring, and there is no such thing. I am not free to ignore gravity and biology and go physically explore outer space in my pajamas; I am not free to turn into a loose collection of photons and irradiate everyone around me; I am not and never will be free to travel faster than the speed of light, or violate casualty, or leave the game. In short, I am only “free” to perform such actions as do not contradict the laws of the universe in which I am embedded.

    So with that being said, saying that God can’t come down and tell everyone “be good!” because it would infringe on our free will is bullshit; God’s already come down and told everyone (and everything) “Entropy always increases!”, and it apparently hasn’t infringed on our free will, despite being a far more fundamental commandment.

  • Bob Carlson

    Basically: “free will” is a red herring, and there is no such thing.

    The concept of free will seems all the more dubious if, as some research seems to indicate, our brains make decisions before we are even aware of them.

  • Samuel

    Of course. How do you think the decision making occurs in the first place since conciousness is generated by the brain.

    “For instance, he cautions us against gluttony, yet creates us with an appetite for rich, sweet, fattening foods.”

    In all due fairness that is a recent problem. For the majority of humaities existance that was a benefit as such foods were rare and valuable.

  • Katie M

    Looking forward to this :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Another problem with “free will” arguments is the point that God apparently values free will more than goodness itself; otherwise, he would’ve tuned human nature to have moral desires. Why, then, should He torment non-believers when they’re merely exercising His “gift”?

    If eternal torment awaits those whose will doesn’t match God’s, I’d argue that that is not “free will”, any more than saying “a robbery victim freely donates his money to the criminal” pointing a gun at his head.

  • Leum

    I’ve long felt that free will is an incoherent concept. And it should be noted that plenty of Christian theologians have gotten around the problem of inclinations to sin by saying that God preordains who will be saved and damned. Calvinism isn’t as popular as it was (though once-regular commenter here MS Quixote was/is firmly Calvinist), but it can’t really be ignored in a discussion of Christian thought of free will and sin.

  • Eurekus

    Ebon

    Thanks for creating this post. It’s bloody brilliant.

    I’m also using this tact on theistic friends. One friend especially whom has an effeminate 12 year old son. Without being too succinct or specific I reason with him asking what is wrong with homosexuality from a purely rational and natural perspective whilst keeping in mind that his son may end up being homosexual. If I don’t get through to him I greatly fear for this child. My friend is very much a fundamentalist literal 6 day creationist. In fact, writing under this alias, I dare to call him and his wife insane.

    Just another quick remark. He told me this much, I would’ve been sharing parenting duties if I hadn’t have become an atheist. That’s the evil christian attitude I and many atheists are up against.

  • MS Quixote

    Calvinism isn’t as popular as it was (though once-regular commenter here MS Quixote was/is firmly Calvinist), but it can’t really be ignored in a discussion of Christian thought of free will and sin.

    Leum, my friend, I hope everything is going your way. Good to see you commenting here. I’m a daily reader here, but a rare commenter. You know why? I like you guys and don’t want to irritate y’all!

    My view of the will and Ebon’s are very similar, actually. The primary difference, I think, being that Ebon doesn’t consider God in the compatibilist chain, where I naturally would. BTW-Reformed theology is fairly resurgent these days.

    At any rate, it’s good to see you around again and I wanted to say hey. Take care…

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

    definitely looking forward to a bit of mind stretching.

    a daily reader here, but a rare commenter. You know why? I like you guys and don’t want to irritate y’all!

    When did you ever irritate anyone Quixote? Good to know you’re still lurking.

  • ArtyB

    Ebon you state that:
    “Human beings come into the world with an innate set of psychological predispositions, desires, and tendencies to act in certain ways. In short, there is such a thing as human nature.”

    Does that mean that we are all, by nature, born racist, greedy, abusers, haters, and so on? If not, where do we draw the line on what is human nature and what is human behavior (which is something learned form the environment)?

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    They fail to comprehend the question, or insist that humans are the only kind of creature God could possibly have created, or claim that God could not have improved us without making tradeoffs that would have resulted in an even worse outcome.

    Oh how eager they are to limit their own god’s omnipotence.

  • Dan L.

    Does that mean that we are all, by nature, born racist, greedy, abusers, haters, and so on? If not, where do we draw the line on what is human nature and what is human behavior (which is something learned form the environment)?

    Uh…research? Just because the line isn’t a fiery strip of white phosphorous doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    More serious answer:

    If everyone was as greedy as everyone else (i.e. if “greed” were part of human nature) then we probably wouldn’t even have a concept for it, because we couldn’t say “Tom is greedy but Sarah is not.” It would not be a meaningful distinction.

    Similarly, if all human beings detested all other human beings that were not of the same race, “racism” wouldn’t be a thing. We, if we were to watch such a situation, might describe them as “racist,” but they wouldn’t describe themselves that way, because again, there’s no “Tom is racist but Sarah is not.”

    Basically, if it’s not something we can say about almost the entire human race, it’s not human nature. The converse is not necessarily true. Almost the entire human race has the concepts of “color” and “number,” but the language of the pirahan tribe of Brazil shows that these concepts may just be common because they are part of the language families that predominate on earth. Another example of the converse being true is that, for example, it’s very rare to find a human being who has never acted immorally; I don’t think this implies that it’s human nature to behave immorally, if for no other reason than the fact that what constitutes moral behavior is a value judgment.

  • keddaw

    Free will is actually the key point here, and people like Dan Dennett and Russell Blackford are messing with the best weapon against theism by claimning we do have free will, even though they ‘freely’ say that it is caused by the state of your brain plus any inputs.

    What they call free will is not what theists require or believe to be free will. If our acts are fully determined by physics, chemistry and biology (which the two philosophers I mentioned 100% agree with) then where is the free will that can possibly send us to hell? Everything we do is caused by the set up of the omnipotent and omniscient being that created the universe and so without a free will external to that universe every sin is god’s fault and the concept of punishment and reward becomes moot.

    I have publicly called Russell Blackford, whom I greatly respect, the Karen Armstrong of free will, he replied that he quite liked that*. Can he not see that he is an apologist for the religious definition of free will (that he doesn’t agree with) the same way Karen Armstrong defends religion while any religious person would call her an atheist for what she actually believes?

    * http://richarddawkins.net/articles/5343-moral-confusion-in-the-name-of-39-science-39?page=9&scope=latest&type=articles

  • DSimon

    If everyone was as greedy as everyone else (i.e. if “greed” were part of human nature) then we probably wouldn’t even have a concept for it, because we couldn’t say “Tom is greedy but Sarah is not.” It would not be a meaningful distinction.

    I disagree; we’d still have a word for it, if only from noticing that people do it but animals/plants/giant burning balls of hydrogen don’t do it. Also, if that greed could be reduced or altered by physical damage to the brain, we’d at least have a medical term for the lack of it.

    Or to put it another way: (nearly) all human beings form and retain memories, but we still have words for that.

  • DSimon

    If our acts are fully determined by physics, chemistry and biology (which the two philosophers I mentioned 100% agree with) then where is the free will that can possibly send us to hell?

    Implemented by the physics, chemistry, and biology, right?

    Or: just because our choices are highly predictable doesn’t necessarily mean that we aren’t really making those choices.

  • keddaw

    @DSimon,

    I’m not trying to get into a free will discussion with the determinist vs compatabilist debate, what I am saying is that the disembodied, choice-making machine that make us morally responsible to ‘God’ ceases to be when every single decision we make is defined by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.

    How can the creator of the universe blame us for our decisions when what he set in play caused me to make any bad decisions I make? This is the difference between the ‘spooky free will’ of the religious and the other free will that Dennett etc. believe in. With Dennett’s free will there is no justice in punishment and reward since it would already be known to god and caused by him and AFAIK virtually all religions require the spooky kind of free will.


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