Even The MacBook Air Is Not Sentient (RJS)

A question that has intrigued me for a long time is the question of “will”. I leave off the word “free” here because free seems to convey a libertarian freedom without constraint. This is nonsense. We a fully embodied creatures and our will, whatever that may be is constrained. Nonetheless there is freedom at some level, or so we all believe, a Free Will. Presented with a cookie on the counter there is “something else”  within and I can decide to eat or not – a real choice, not the mechanistic workings of a computer on legs. Hunger, preference (I don’t care for peanut butter cookies), and a desire not to appear a pig may play a role (or when I was young the admonitions of my mom not to snack before dinner).

Tim O’Connor has an interesting (although academic) article on Free Will on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But free will is not merely a philosophical question with implications for Moral Responsibility, it is also an inescapably scientific question. The freedom of a will, a mind for action, calls into question a number of scientific concepts and assumption. As such it has been the subject of numerous investigations, a number that will only grow in the future.

Is there a non-physical “mind” that can produce physical effects?

If so, does this break the chain of cause and effect?

Can an ephemeral thought be considered a physical cause?

One of the famous experiments thought to put a nail in the coffin of free will is the that of Libet et al. published in the journal Brain, 106, 623-642 (1983). In experiments reported here the researchers found that EEG recordings revealed a signal that appeared in the brain on average 350 milliseconds (ms) before the “intention” to act, which in turn preceded the actual action by some 200 ms, on average – before the action. The brain prepares to act before the decision to act, suggesting the decision does not control the action, but is a consequence of the action.

A recent study published in PNAS last Friday, online prior to print calls into question some of the conclusions of the study by Libet, not the data as far as I can tell, but adds new data and refines the interpretation. In particular this study suggests that the readiness potential may not be a specific indicator of action. You can read the abstract, or this commentary on the study: Brain might not stand in the way of free will.

But these kinds of experiments don’t answer all questions about Free Will either. It is a topic demanding a more rambling and extended consideration. I recently picked up a book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch, a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at CalTech. An article he wrote for Scientific American provides a sketch of some of his thinking: How Physics and Neuroscience Dictate Your “Free” Will.

In the opening chapter of his book Koch reflects on questions like pain and beauty and the role of consciousness and sentience in the cosmos. Pain and beauty are not concepts that are obvious from the laws of physics, the properties of chemicals, or even the biochemistry of the cell. These are concepts that require or seem to require, a view of animals, and especially humans, as something more than computers made of meat.

Suppose that I coupled a temperature sensor to my laptop and programmed it in such a manner that if the room became too hot, the word pain would appear on the screen in big red letters. But would “pain” feel like anything to my Mac? I’m willing to grant many things to any Apple product, especially coolness, but not sentience. (p. 2)

Koch is not a Christian, and views science as incompatible with religion although he was raised as a Roman Catholic. In the second chapter he discusses something of his walk away from religion. I’ll come to that in the next post. He takes a rather common view these days:

Religion and science are two modes of understanding the world, its origin, and its meaning. Historically they have opposed each other. Ever since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, religion in the West has been on retreat, losing one battle after another. … But the worst blow was delivered by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It removed humans from their God-given dominion over earth and replaced the epic story of Genesis with a tale stretching across eons, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (p. 4)

This book is something of a memoir describing his wanderings through science, including his move away from religion. Yet he considers himself a romantic reductionist because he seeks quantitative explanations for consciousness yet still insists on meaning. The term romantic reductionist and hence the subtitle of his book comes from …

my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us. Meaning in the sweep of its cosmic evolution, not necessarily in the lives of the individual organisms within it. (p. 8)

“Confessions” harks back, he suggests, to the Confessions of St. Augustine who initiated the genre, with a somewhat different focus and end.

I am going to post on this book, not because I think it portrays the relationship between science and the Christian faith accurately, but because I find the questions of consciousness, the relationship between brain and mind and the possibility of Free Will, even a modicum of true freedom, to be powerful questions worth exploring and starting a discussion.

Does neuroscience present a problem for Christian faith? Why?

Do you think we have a will with even a dab of freedom?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • phil_style

    “free” will is such an interesting question. On the one had, our sense of justice seems to necessitate some kind of free will. We need to think that rewards and punishments can be, in an ideal world, handed out on a fair basis, assuming then that humans make free choices.

    On the other hand, we have so much data that indicates that peoples “choices” are, in many cases formed by their environment, are cumulative (i..e heavily constrained by previous actions/choices/habits) or are impulsive/ instinctive.

    Our biblical narratives don’t give us a clear standing. Some biblical texts indicate a human mind that is easily manipulated by externals. Other texts indicate that the paths people take are their own choice, and they can be individually held “accountable” as stand alone units for those choices.

    Our traditions (built on top of the biblical narratives) seems to be the clearest voices in one direction or the other – where the bible overall is vague. The historical dogmas that assumed immaterial souls heavily influenced pre-reformation anthropology no doubt, and had theological implications – individual responsibility and guilt. Post reformation theologies went both ways – some forms of Calvinism seeming to be very supportive/consistent with the notion of there not being a free-will.

    I’ve personally arrived at the position that there is a range of anthropological that can be adopted within the context of still remaining “christian”…

  • scotmcknight

    In free will, I think “free” means that the person, having made a decision, could have chosen otherwise. So I wonder, RJS, if your sense of “will” is agreeable to that meaning of “free will”?

  • RJS


    It is free will I am talking about – but this is such a loaded term. The core issue as I see it isn’t how free – but is there any freedom at all. So many will throw up a straw man with images of a soul driving a body (in fact Koch throws this up as part of his dismissal of religion I think), but will and consciousness are certainly deeply connected to our bodies. We are fully embodied creatures.

  • I don’t get the MacBook Air reference!

  • RJS

    Mark – from one of the quotes from Koch’s book (and the fact that Scot keeps pushing Mac here – I’m a PC user myself … well, except for my iPad and iPhone).

  • Ok, I get it now, I re-read the quote! I too am a PC user. When Scot was here in Adelaide he kept pushing the (false) gospel of Mac and we kept telling him that the apple was a symbol of the fall! 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, the evidence suggests Adam and Eve ate a fig, not an apple. Apple, therefore, can’t be used as a trope for the Fall. End.of.Debate.

  • Pfft! Every children’s bible I owned told me it was an APPLE! Fig shcmig!

  • Scott Gay

    In C. S. Lewis’ last interview he gives very compelling answers:

    Wirt(Sherwood Eliot “Woody”):
    In your book “Surprised by Joy” you remark that you were brought into the faith kicking and struggling and resentful, with eyes darting in every direction looking for escape. You suggest that you were compelled, as it were, to become a Christian. Do you feel that you made a decision at the time of your conversion?

    I would not put it that way. What I wrote in “Surprised by Joy” was that before God closed in on me, I was offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. But I feel my decision was not so important. I was the object rather than the subject in this affair. I was decided upon. I was glad afterwards at the way it came out, but at the moment what I heard was God saying, “Put down your gun and we’ll talk”.

    That sounds to me as if you came to a very point of decision

    Well, I would say that the most deeply compelled action is also the freest action. By that I mean no part of you is outside the action. It is a paradox. I expressed it in “Surprised by Joy” by saying that I chose, yet it really did not seem possible to do the opposite.

    As a paradox, it is hard for us all to hold the opposites simultaneously. True courage is loving one’s life and being willing to lose one’s life. True humility is not thinking too highly of oneself and not thinking too lowly of your soul. Christians have simultaneously exalted marriage and celibacy. We have been accused as warriors and pacifists. It is a balancing act. Even love….Christians must be more angry with theft than before when love was defined by humans, and yet more kinder to thieves than before. There has to be room for wrath and love to run wild. Mental and emotional liberty are likewise not as simple as they look. The modern libertarian often sets out to feel everything freely and ends not feeling anything at all. In the realm of free and constrained, there is paradox…..you don’t clarify then by making them a mixture. Moderns have asserted the dignity and autonomy of free personhood…….I say yes. But they hardly think in terms of servanthood……..and yet the most powerful person I know gave it up to serve. So to being constrained to servanthood…..I say yes. Being passionate about both in equilibrium takes some doing, and is a wild ride.

  • James Rednour

    Free will is such a compelling subject. Most of the experts on cognitive science I’ve read say that it is an illusion. An extremely compelling illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. It certainly seems like I have the ability to choose a Coke or a Dr Pepper when I’m standing at the soda machine, but do I just THINK I could have chosen a Coke while I sip my Dr. Pepper? I find it hard to believe that if one were to rewind the universe ten years or so and let it replay that I would still be standing there sipping that same Dr. Pepper. Of course, there’s no way to be certain. Even if you could rewind the universe, you wouldn’t know you had rewound it when it starts to play again. The mind boggles.

    Of course, the quantum level is not deterministic but does the randomness of subatomic particles have any effect on the world at our level? Most scientists say no, but I’m not sure. Anyway, the problem of consciousness is probably the second greatest mystery in the universe (next to why IS there a universe at all). It’s no wonder that we turn to religion to help us cope with these seemingly unanswerable questions.

  • “Does neuroscience present a problem for Christian faith? Why?”

    No, I don’t think so (with my limited understanding of the current state of ns).

    The question could be phrased, ‘does evolution present a problem for the Christian faith?’, or ‘does science present a problem for the Christian faith?’ Would you answer either of those ‘yes’? I doubt it.

    The sciences may tell us what is, but cannot touch what is behind the what that is. Understanding how the world came to be merely tells us the process God initiated/created and used. Similarly, our knowledge gained through science cannot address the question of God by the very nature of what science is/does. They point to God, magnify God, evidence God . . . “everyman knows” . . .(Ro1).

    Other evidences tell me (I’d say prove to me) that God is, and thereby neuroscience only deepens my sense of awe and wonder for the amazing God that created a cosmos that keeps creating itself in such unfathomable ways. It deepens my sense of humility, of love, of attachment to the One I know is. I can literally feel an explosion I cannot contain originate deep within and rise and shout, “How great Thou art.”

    For those that have decided God is not,to their thinking NS is merely another nail in His coffin.

    Neuroscience? Fascinating. A problem? No.

  • Chris Sandoval

    “But free will is not merely a philosophical question with implications for Moral Responsibility, it is also an inescapably scientific question. The freedom of a will, a mind for action, calls into question a number of scientific concepts and assumption.” This quote is followed by paraphrases of scientific experiments. I think the point should be remembered that philosophy takes precedence over science in that it comes first. Even the scientist doing hard research is using philosophical presumptions to interpret the data or results of the experiments. Libet’s experiments, for example, don’t prove anything about physicalism since the causal relationship of body to mind need not be asymmetric. Also, what experiment could ever capture the first person experience of a mental state. This is irreducible but that is a discussion for philosophy not science. Nonetheless, interesting thoughts presented here.

  • RJS


    “Philosophy takes precedence over science in that it comes first” is a ridiculous statement oft made. Or let me back down just a little … yes we have philosophical presumptions – but not all philosophical assumptions are equally valid. Some philosophical assumptions espoused by some people are unmitigated balderdash. So it isn’t and cannot be philosophy then science (or science without philosophy), it is more of a spiral of self-correcting tests. Philosophy, like Mathematics, can have abstract realms with no contact to reality.

    These experiments can be criticized – and they are, on valid grounds. Some of which you mention. But the real point here is cause and effect. Certainly “philosophy” comes into the consideration of this question – but I don’t think most who think about the issues get this idea of mechanism. Does there have to be a mechanism?

  • CGC

    HI Everyone,,
    I liked Chris’s thoughts about the relationship between philosophy and science. I might add when it comes to free will, what about our imagination? How does our moral imagination interpret the evidence? And does a limited imagination keep science or Christian faith from moving forward?

  • Percival

    Here’s my highly subjective view formed in the total vacuum of any philosophical training.

    I don’t know if any of you have a will, but I must assume and live as if I do. For me to have a will is necessary in order to have a meaningful existence. I must believe in meaning and purpose; therefore, my will exists. Since I cannot live without meaning, my will is real. If something is necessary for my existence, then the fact of my existence means that the will, which is inextricable from my existence, actually exists as well.

    On the other hand, I may just be dust in the wind and the Creator is a big trickster.

  • RJS


    I react to the statement because it has been used to claim that some anti-realist positions are equally valid, and this is ridiculous.

    But what is imagination? This gets to the question I want to address. We can quibble about philosophy vs science or science as a subset of philosophy (which I think is valid) – but the point I wanted to make in the original post was a little different than this. Philosophical discussions of free will center on things like moral responsibility – but there is another level to the discussion, not really divorced from philosophy – but centered on different philosophical issues and scientific questions.

  • Percival

    What is imagination? It seems to me it is the ability to have a new thought that was not given to you from outside.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I liked your balancing statement (my initial reaction to Chris was to say, “yeah, but wait a minute . . . ” but I liked the whole issue that Chris was raising that I left it at that. Some of the debates within the scientific community is really over the philosophy of science and the interpretation of that science. Chris has a point that assumptions and philosophy are in the equation but you have a point that philosophy should not dictate the results of conclusions.

    Here is one for imagination. I wish traditional Christians would open their imaginations to a bigger world than linear history, facts over prose and proofs over poetry and beauty. I wish atheist scientists would not limit their horizons to materialism and reductionism. There is so much more to the world and universe than that. The very Bible that traditionalist Christians and religious skeptical scientists seem to read tend to make the Bible be a kind of dead-flat book. There Bible is so much bigger, richer, and deeper than all that and there is this world of mystery, beauty, and transcendence in the Bible that should challenge our imagination to be larger, not smaller or limited to one sphere of reality.

  • James Rednour

    “But what is imagination?”

    In _How the Mind Works_, Steven Pinker defines intelligence as “the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules”. I think that’s one of the best working definitions I’ve seen. If we assume that imagination is a byproduct of intelligence, I’d say that imagination is the ability to introspect about what those goals may be and the means by which they may be attained. How does that happen? Beats me, but I advocate that human consciousness is a big part of what it means to be created in God’s image and what separates us from the rest of God’s creation. Can chimps imagine? I suspect they can imagine on a very primitive level (e.g. if I steal alpha chimp’s food he will pummel me). That’s a first-order level of thinking. But I doubt that any animal but man can look at another animal and imagine it can feel the same desires and fears that it does or introspect about what constitutes good and evil or imagine what its life will look like in ten years.

  • Tom F.

    Does the will have even a dab of freedom?

    As RJS already points out, these terms are so loaded in science, philosophy, and theology that even to make a point in this area requires so much definition and semantics as to become almost instantly cumbersome.

    I think Luther and Calvin, both who stressed man’s lack of free will in reference to God, would not be happy with a deterministic view of human beings in reference to eating a cookie. Really, the fusion of Reformation ideas about Providence and Sovereignty with deterministic (enlightenment) ideas about nature is embarassingly close to Deism, if you really get down to it. What is the difference between the universe as a clock that God winds up and leaves alone and a universe in which God decrees exactly how it will “wind down” according to his divine decree before the universe even exists? The distinction between God’s will as manifest through impersonal laws (deism) and God’s will as manifest through deterministic decree (deterministic sovereignty) is a distinction without a difference, in my personal opinion. Even though I’m not a Calvinist, I don’t think its helpful to associate Calvin with determinism, without any nuance.

    In reference to the original question, I think freedom is a function of the time span. That is, on the micro level, your body/brain/person is loaded with a readiness to act in certain ways. So there is relatively little freedom moment to moment, with perhaps only the potential to restrain these readinesses (like in Libet’s example) in what some have called “free won’t”. But as you look at decisions made at other levels, more freedom emerges. Should I be with these people or those? Should I take this job or that one? Should I go to church or stay home? These decisions shape our readiness so that we respond differently in the moment to moment decisions. Finally, there is the overall direction of our lives, including what we will worship and pour ourselves into. There is more freedom here, but it isn’t absolute.

    One result of this is that I think that moral evaluation of a person is most centered around that last question. I think this resonates with a huge biblical emphasis less on individual actions as right or wrong, and much more emphasis on who or what we worship. This is why the Bible is so relentless against idolatry; it is possibly the area where human beings have the most freedom, and the Bible sees idolatry as shaping persons so that they act in ways contrary to God (e.g., also Paul in the beginning of Romans).

    On the other hand, I’m always confused when people feel like having an entirely separate soul from your body makes these sort of questions any easier. Why couldn’t the components of a soul end up being just as deterministic as the physical components of a person? It seems like it just moves the question back one step.

    That is my impression of Moreland and Rae’s (2000) treatment of the issue (you can preview on Google books for free- I am looking at pages 122-25). They take a libertarian free will (only free if you could have not done a particular thing) position, and they suggest that libertarian free will means being able to act for a reason without having that reason determine you to act. As an example, they say that you might freely raise your hand to vote. The goal of voting doesn’t determine your hand raising; but rather you freely raise your hand in order to vote. The price of this move is to see goals/reasons/”telos” as “final causes”, that is causes that are not themselves caused by anything else . But this seems to be empirically testable, and psychology has shown that people’s attitudes and goals can be probabilitically influenced in law-like ways.

    I could go into more detail if anyone is interested, but I’m guessing I’ve gone too long already.

  • Adam

    The definition of free will that was laid down by Descartes, (found by following the link on physics and neuroscience) is “you are free if, under identical circumstances, you could have acted otherwise”. The theory for no free-will or cause and effect states that you could not have acted otherwise. I believe it was Sam Harris who stated that was has happened is the only thing that could have happened, no other options.

    My question is, how is this not a manifestation of hindsight bias? http://www.spring.org.uk/2012/06/the-hindsight-bias-i-knew-it-all-along.php

    I’m pretty sure everyone here has the experience of free will. Why should this experience be doubted as an illusion? Additionally, in the arena of mental health, the idea that people have the capability to choose differently is a huge step towards healthier living. Why would meat machines operate better with this deception?

    Could it be that the control and predict methods of science break and give false answers when dealing with things uncontrollable? Maybe a better rephrasing, if the will is a non-physical entity should we be using physical tools to attempt to measure it? Is this even a reasonable expectation?

  • Napman

    With regard to the question can a nonphysical mind produce physical effects, there are not many Christian theists who should say no, considering that the Christian God has no body. Saying that an immaterial mind cannot produce change in the hard physical word is as much a disproof of God’s potency as anything else.

    I agree with RJS that there may be more than one philosophical position on the nature of the mind that is compatible with Christian faith. Science does not directly address these philosophical questions and Scripture does not teach a specific philosophy, although it does set markers. Any credible position must deal with what Chalmer’s calls the “hard problem of consciousness,” a problem that makes an entirely material explanation of the human mind difficult to sustain.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC (14) and all,

    “does a limited imagination keep science or Christian faith from moving forward?”

    Ouch! and, I think so. But then, as the discussion shows, words need to be defined carefully, minutely to even permit discussion. Unfortunately, words are fungible. This is easy to see in philosophical discussions where much ink is spilled over definitions, much more by those who dispute, misunderstand or try to sabotage the proffered definition. And so it goes.

    Nevertheless, I do like what James (19) offers. My field is neurobiology and behaviour,  but of invertebrates, specifically insects. They don’t appear to imagine anything, but they sure are hard to figure out. Gives me a little pause when speculating about human imagination.

    Consciousness and imagination are indeed crucial. In neurobiological terms they are also states, like hunger (at a “simpler” level). Even hunger in insects is devilishly difficult to define/explain as it involves neural circuitry and complex neurochemistry just for starters. For thirty years, with a good number of other people around the world, I tried to figure out what it really means to say an insect is hungry. When I retired, I decided to study something easier, like languages and theology!

    But CGC’s question also raises an entirely different point on which  I can never seem to get a discussion going. I know this group won’t let me down. 🙂 We all know outstanding Christians who are not great imaginers, readers, discussers of angels on pins or elsewhere and who even get wrong their interpretation of some parts of Scripture. Yet, when you want to show someone how the Christian life should be lived, you would like to have them follow that person around, or at least listen to them pray. The Holy Spirit obviously knows something about human consciousness and imagination that we are in the dark on. And, he is working with the same brain we study. 

    As for free will. Oy vey! Here I appeal to practical realism and leave it at that. If it walks like a duck…………..

  • Percival

    James #19,
    Pinker is keen to equate human intelligence with computer-like decision making. it’s about problem solving. That’s why his definition must be so broad. I think a definition of intelligence must be able to distinguish between a computer and a human.

    Ironically, Pinker who is in the school of Chomskian linguistics has forgotten the significance of Chomski’s famous quote, “Colorless green ideas sleep noiselessly.” The story behind this quote was that in debate with behaviorists, Chomsky created this grammatically-correct nonsensical sentence to show that human language could not be accounted for by behaviorist theory and habit formation. It shows that we can conceive a sentence that has never been thought of before AND that our brain has separate mechanisms for semantics and grammar. We know that a computer could generate many such sentences but that humans do not because the human mind wants and needs to be meaningful.

    You can also program a computer to write Bob Dylan-like song lyrics (yes, there is such a program). This was an attempt to program creativity within a set of Dylanesque parameters. However, in a Turing test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test) one would never fail to be able to distinguish between the actual Robert Zimmerman and a computer equipped to imitate him. That’s the kind of test that Pinker’s definition of intelligence fails. A computer can solve problems within parameters but it does not exhibit intelligence or imagination.

  • RJS

    Bev (#23),

    Thanks for the background. Insect behavior is fascinating – I recently read about a study looking at facial recognition by wasps, how wasps recognize and categorize other wasps by facial markings. Fascinating stuff.

    I’ll look forward to your insights on some of the later posts on this book.

  • RJS

    Napman (#22),

    You are right – there are not many Christian theist who would say no. But this is a serious question for many scientists or science students thinking about religion, especially biology and neuroscience students. I have known more than one for whom this idea was a deal breaker or a at least a serious hurdle, the reductionist view of consciousness is taught, explicitly or implicitly in many places.

    And one only needs to point to some well known examples in physics to see that “practical realism” based on everyday experience can be wrong. I have read some who then make the connection that our perception of free will is likewise wrong. Koch does interact with Chalmers, and brings up his “Hard Problem” in the opening part of his book – it should be good for some conversation.

  • DRT

    Neural science certainly presents a problem for Christian faith,but it is not becaue of the science but the scientists and human fallibility in reaching conclusions that may not be accurate. The science itself cannot cause a problem since it is examining what actually is (as someone else pointed out in the comments).

    It should not surprise us that we need to have a physical response that precedes awareness, since our bodies are an instantiation of a human. The act of instantiating in a material world must have material implications. A big part of the biological processes are to short cut things that do not have to have a conscious component. If that were not true we would be sitting around deciding whether we should be our heart now, or now. Or wosre, decide if one the cells should divide now, or later.

    On the subject of philosophy and science, we don’t get anywhere in a study like this is we simply throw up our hands and say that it is all presuppositions. I hope that we can side step that during the course of these posts (RJS, perhaps you can call that out of bounds in the future posts….)

    I also love the idea (!) of talking about imagination in these contexts. Taking the physicality of the response out of the equation frees (!) us quite a bit in discussing this topic.

    James Rednour’s quote about intelligence is relevant, though I think it is wrong. It is centering intelligence in the mechanistic computational paradigm using presuppositions that limit the conclusion. I define intelligence more broadly to not only include the computational rational experience, but the more ineffible experience of leaping beyond the rational into the possible.

    Tom F’s comment drawing parallels between the deistic god winding up the mechanism and therefore knowing the way it winds down opened a new door for me. The Calvinists indeed make the claim that god knows how it will wind down and therefore it does indeed approach deism. That puts into words something that I have imagined (!) as a concept but was not able to articulate so well.

    The counter to that, though, is that god can still love us out of pity since we are animals caught in his zoo. Not the image I would like to have.

    But my idea of self is more broad than most, I know. Most assume that we are this embodied self that is somehow contained in the physicality of our biology. I think a more adequate definition of self extends to the rest of the universe. Think of it this way. If my body and brain act as sensing devices and execution devices for Me, then so does the rest of creation. The body gives a location for centralized action, but is not limited to it. I cannot feel my fingernails, though they are clearly part of me. They are more like my car, or my towel. They are part of my broader physicallity that does not have touch and sense tied to them but are clearly a part of me. I can chop them off and simply have to live with the consequences of that action arrived from deleting a part of me. The universe is more complicated and inextricably tied to us than we can imagine. We are more defined by our relationships between Me and the universe than we are defined by what is in me. Our instantiation does not simply include what is within our bodies, but includes the context of our bodies as the complete instance of ME.

    CGC’s and Bev Mitchell’s discussion on limitations of imagination are quite good. I think this goes back to definitions around intelligence. If we define intelligence in computational terms, then we naturally eliminate the irrational as being non-constructive. I dare think that my non-imaginitive Christian friends are simply more constrained due to being beat down for irrational thoughts and simply censored more in their articulation of their imagination than lacking imagination. They, ironically, choose to follow instead of lead. I like to embrace irrationality. Who ever said we have to be rational? Certainly not Jesus.

    Again, I wish I was unemployed so I could actually converse with all of you on this instead of simply dumping my thoughts….

  • DRT

    Goodness! Look what you did now! You made me late for work.

  • Jon G


    I like using the term “limited free will”. Would that make things easier?

    I think of it as the ability to do as one sees fit within a constrained system. Like a fish has the ability to swim to the left or to the right, but not to become a center in the NBA (if the fish has such a desire! 🙂 ). We all have limits, but are free to become the most that our limits will allow. Hence, “Limited Free Will”.

  • James Rednour

    “James Rednour’s quote about intelligence is relevant, though I think it is wrong. It is centering intelligence in the mechanistic computational paradigm using presuppositions that limit the conclusion. I define intelligence more broadly to not only include the computational rational experience, but the more ineffible experience of leaping beyond the rational into the possible.”

    Let me be clear that I do not fully agree with Pinker. The computational model of the mind is compelling yet incomplete. My assertion was that his definition of intelligence was one of the best I have seen. Why? Because it grounds intelligence in the testable realm. Certainly intelligence encompasses much more than just how an animal can solve a problem. That excludes things like art, philosophy, introspection and higher-level emotional responses. But how does one TEST for those aspects of intelligence? We all know that humans are more intelligent than chimps, but how much do we know about how much more intelligent humans are than dolphins or octopuses? Those forms of life are so different from us that I don’t even know how we could even test their intellect against ours using Pinker’s definition. There’s no possible way to determine whether a dolphin can imagine the same way that we can. I doubt it does, but how can we ever know? Anyway, a definition of intelligence that cannot be tested experimentally is just an opinion or a feeling, and feelings are often quite wrong.

    Something about humans IS different than any other animal. Startlingly different. And that difference is attributable to God’s hand touching humans in a personal way and elevating them to a status of a little less than angels (Psalm 8:5). I believe that is what is meant by being created in God’s image.

  • DRT

    James Rednour, we agree.

  • DRT

    Let me couch that a bit. We agree, but I believe that more effort needs to be done to adequately identify and quantify these other types of thinking. The assessment may end up being subjective on some, but a subjective assessment by experts on the assessment can be reliable.

  • James Rednour

    Oh absolutely. Perhaps one day we will be able to hook a person or a dolphin up to a machine and project their mental images onto a monitor. That’s hard to imagine, but most things that science has disclosed to us were hard to imagine at one time. I think cognitive science is one of the most fascinating areas of study right now and the things scientists will discover in the next few decades would flabbergast us if we knew about them right now. It’s an exciting time to be alive! 🙂

  • Bev Mitchell

    DRT (27),

    I think you are right when you say: 

    I also love the idea (!) of talking about imagination in these contexts. Taking the physicality of the response out of the equation frees (!) us quite a bit in discussing this topic.

    Because of my background, I can go some distance in understanding, and helping others understand, the neurobiology (and don’t forget the neurochemistry, for our brains are part chemical soup – or maybe stew would be a better metaphor). However, God is not in there in any way we can discern. If we try too hard in that direction, we end up like the cosmonaut who didn’t find God on his first trip into space (Yuri Gagarin wasn’t it?) 

    Now this is not to say that we should ignore what goes on in our brains (or anywhere else) when we pray, meditate, read the Bible, listen to inspirational music etc. These studies are fascinating. But, if we are searching for the link between the mind and the spirit, we will most likely be disappointed. And as for how the Holy Spirit interacts (almost said interfaces which would have necessitated a long and painful time out) with our spirit/mind, let’s not even go there.

    I think God actually understands all this in the way systems biologists, systems engineers etc. are trying to address – there are emergent properties all over the place and, as for a reductionist approach, well, you can’t get there from here (or here from there). So yes, imagination is a good place to begin. That is guaranteed to get us into sufficient trouble.

    Denis Noble’s “Beyond the Genome” might be fun to discuss sometime – it’s very systems orientated. It’s not written from a faith point if view, but there may be insights there that can be applied to wholistic questions in faith and practice.

  • MatthewS

    Eve and the fruit – I read once that the forbidden fruit was neither apple nor fig: it was marijuana. The promise of enlightenment was a result of lighting up!

  • DRT

    Bev Mitchell#34, I love this line “That is guaranteed to get us into sufficient trouble.” Indeed!

    If I am reading you correctly, I agree that we can not ever get to the bottom of many of these linkages, and agree that there is more that will likely wait until god shows it to us, and agree that this is a worthy area of study.

    I find two attractions in it (and more, but for now..). I have a natural defensive reaction to many studies like the 1983 one that limits emergent properties. I even have issues with the idea of emergence because it is inherently system based, which does limit the role of an even bigger idea. But emergence is the best I know of right now to getting toward something much more metaphysical, and therefore think of it as a good, and necessary, stepping stone toward something approaching what I have come to experience as a god centered world. I believe that the end game of emergent thinking will be that something else is going on. And someone, somewhere, will say, “That’s stange!?”

    I am also not convinced that god did not use emergence as a mechanism. In other words, much like evolution, and neural/chemical processes, that may be the mechanism by which we can experience what we are.

    I have an appreciation for your work, from an experiential perspective. It seems that everything I encounter is an onion. When one layer is peeled away there is another there to be dealt with. And this is particularly prevalent in motivations (like hunger) and behaviors.

    Decades ago I read about a study that asked if smiling makes us happy or vice versa. Over the years I have experimented with this both on myself and those around me (they must really love me). My working hypothesis is now that it is a two way street. We smile as part of our biological make up, and we can also make our biology smile. This goes back to the short cut hypothesis I talked about a bit. Our bodies adapt to our thoughts at times and short cut the process via chemical and physical changes. But that does not remove us completely.

    Being as I have absolutely no real world experience in your field of study I feel free to speculate, so I will. I think that many of the more automatic processes, and I would put hunger/response in that category, are short cuts that have may have started out differently. The “differently” could be chance (those that have a certain physiology survive), or it could be more. It could be a behavior that was instantiated in the being. And who knows where that could have come from.

    Fun stuff. I look forward to more posts.

  • Marshall

    Neural science or any natural science can’t be a problem for Christianity, because God is responsible for all the neurons and all the nature. If there is a problem, it must be with the understanding of the scientists or the understanding of the Christians, one or the other.

    The notion that your brain has made a decision before your consciousness is aware of it just goes to show that your “self” is bigger than your “consciousness”, which really should not come as any surprise to anyone who has done the least amount of self-observation.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “And someone, somewhere, will say, “That’s stange!?” or, á la NTR, “Why didn’t we think of that?” 

    Yes, a systems approach is the best we have for now. Hope your math is up to it, mine certainly isn’t. I’m just an experimental biologist who wishes he could do better math – but then I’m also a baritone who really wants to sing tenor (but my wife makes sure there is no way I will ever think I can).

    “I am also not convinced that god did not use emergence as a mechanism. In other words, much like evolution, and neural/chemical processes, that may be the mechanism by which we can experience what we are.” 

    I really do think the emergent meme will be very useful as we try to get by this impasse between the YEC, ID, theistic evolution and whatever (I think I’m with the whatevers, but then, I’m Canadian. 🙂

    “My working hypothesis is now that it is a two way street.”

    Yes, yes, yes (at least, I think so.)

    As to “short cuts” it’s practically a truism in evolutionary biology that whatever an organism has at any moment may be put to use to deal with a new contingency, in fact probably will be rather than build something de novo (who has the time?) 

    Now I’m convinced that we should sometime review Denis Noble’s “Beyond the Genome” here – assuming RJS and others think it’s a good idea. I just reread the first chapter this afternoon. That chapter alone shows a bagful parallels with respect to where the life sciences are right now and where the scattered evangelical world is with respect to how we use Scripture. It’s almost uncanny (or not).

    I’ll try to put a few quotes together from Nobel to run by the group in case I’m seeing things that aren’t there. I hope Scot will have time to look at it. 

    Great fun, but necessary too.


  • Bev Mitchell

    Whoops. #38 is responding to DRT # 36. That context may help it make more sense. Does Patheos offer a replace function?

  • DRT

    MatthewS, how about a vote for donuts as the forbidden fruit?