Free Nill—Reflections on Freedom, Neurobiology, and Sin

Is there a neurobiology of sin? Can sinful behavior be explained away as causal effects of chemical reactions in the brain that affect the limbic system, leading to emotional experiences that shape beliefs which lead to actions considered undesirable by society? In another age, this question would be dismissed as an example of a classic Aristotelian category mistake. But in a world where everyday experiences of mental and emotional origins point directly to the brain, the notion of a mind apart from the brain is no longer sustainable. This compression of mental and physical states may equally offer real or false promises to both science and theology. It may demonstrate the supremacy of one or the other field of inquiry but for the theory of multiple levels of reality.

But for this paper, our modest goal is to set the stage for a transdiciplinary engagement that preserves the inter-subjective integrities of the natural sciences and of Christian theology without distancing their respective reasoning strategies. All disciplines enjoy a core reasoning strategy parked securely within the limits of its disciplinary competences. However, at its disciplinary frontiers, reasoning strategies begin to take license with orthodoxy as it probes beyond its natural boundaries to engage in interdisciplinary reflection. At this stage, both science and theology peruse in philosophical atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is ultimately a philosophical question that we are concerned about. But before we come to the question, let us consider the advances in the new science of mind1 that led to it.

Some observers of scientific trends state that this is the age of neuroscience.2 This is not lost on theologians of science and systematic theologians interested in updating dogmatic theological doctrines. Among the myriad challenges to the traditional interpretations of the classic doctrines of atonement and salvation that arise from even a cursory appreciation of neurobiology is the thorny issue of sin. Unique in the world of religious ideas is the Christian notion of ‘original sin’, which although refined by Augustine, was nevertheless, of ancient understanding.

At stake is whether sin ought to be understood as a description of a no-fault rite of passage in the emergence of human moral consciousness, or a prescription of a normative declaration of divine judgment for which each human will is responsible? The answer either robs the sin of its probative force and makes a mockery of most interpretations hitherto, or posits an impasse at the intersection of science and theology. If sin is fault-free, then divine judgment and redemption does not make sense. If sin carries guilt, it proclaims the failure of biology to explain moral cognition.

Has neurobiology adequately explained away sin in terms of evolutionary naturalism? Is human agency independent of conditioning factors that cripples our volitional potency? Is the biochemistry of addiction an adequate excuse for socially destructive and undesirable behavior? Incidentally, the very idea of undesirability itself presupposes the existence of a universal moral grammar (UMG).

If neurobiology successfully challenges the very existence of free will, this would serve notice that the days of guilty-sin are numbered. If free will is illusory, then the integrities of moral cognition and the demands of justice collapse. A series of experiments appear to do just that, and we shall explore the implications of some inferences that arose from them. But how do we seek a unity of knowledge by harnessing the fruits of transdiciplinary engagement? A secondary question might be, whether the denial of sin endangers the moral demand for justice?

Let us begin with the prevailing interpretations of the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation. These doctrines assume that humans possess free will, with awareness of our volitional actions. However, full mental awareness is not a universal trait. The soteriological status of the mentally impaired, as well as persons who are either subconscious or unconscious - as in comatose states, have not been adequately considered. Free will in this sense is also not available to us when we are asleep or day-dreaming. Hence this assumption overreaches the natural limits of our everyday experiences. Be that as it may, let us suppose that our definition of free will is somewhat less absolute, taking into consideration all the obstacles aforementioned. Is volition the only measure of freedom? The focus on volition has undermined the possibility of cognitive nolition, i.e., the capacity to veto a will to act. Can the freedom to nay rather than yay operate as a function of freedom? This is important because it opens up the discussion regarding the nature of consciousness. Can we make decisions while we remain unconscious? Is consciousness a side effect of neuronal functions - an epiphenomenon3 of brain states?

Neurobiology suggests that our sense of conscious instigation for our acts may be an illusion of retrospection. If so, the presumption of immediate cognitive awareness in Christian theological reflection is now at risk. Are our actions unconsciously initiated followed by conscious rationalization, or do we make conscious decisions to initiate our actions? In the past 30 years, neuroscientific experiments have posed a challenge to the received wisdom that conscious volition is immediate. In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet sought to discover the pathways in the brain for conscious mental activities. He registered a time delay of 500 milliseconds between the mental activity and the instance of conscious awareness of that activity. This suggests that unconscious electrical processes in the brain (readiness potential) precede conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts.

Unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts that are retrospectively felt and believed to be consciously motivated by the subject. Did the brain cause an electrical blip before the conscious mind willed the action? Libet inferred this electrical blip in the brain to be perhaps a spark of free will. Experimental and technological limits notwithstanding, if this can be further substantiated, it opens the door to an inference that the choice may be determined in the brain before the mind acts, making free will illusory.4 A more likely answer may be that the choice is made freely but not consciously. Unconscious inference may be operating in choice as it does in perception. Whether freedom of choice requires conscious attention may be illustrated by the experience of ‘automatic’ driving. I often drive the NJ Turnpike from New York to Princeton and back. The regularity of these experiences have caused in me what Michael Polanyi calls a tacit memory - such that although I may not be consciously aware at the moments of decision-making, it seems that my body ‘knows’ and my brain ‘chooses’ to act accordingly so that I drive the car to take Exit 18. If this is an example of unconscious acts freely taken, then it seems that consciousness is not a necessary element of choice-making. It could however be argued that attention is a subset of consciousness so that what I experienced was a loss of attention rather than of consciousness per se. So perhaps we may modify our argument to say that a choice may be freely taken without attentive consciousness when we rely on tacit knowledge.

Nevertheless, the observed delay between decision and attentive consciousness we call awareness poses a moral question. If electrical impulses in our brains signal decision-making, so that we decide before we become consciously aware of our will, can we be held responsible for our decisions? Are we really free to decide against our preconscious decision? In his own interpretation of the results, Libet found room for the operations of free will in the form of a power of veto.5 In 2004, he wrote a detailed account of his experiments and introduced his unified cerebral mental field theory (UCMFT), along with a falsifiability test.6 Several conclusions that Libet offers concerning the implications of the brain’s delay of perception are troubling. They include the fact that we are never conscious of the present, but only of whatever we perceived a half second before the real now; that our visual perception is itself illusory so that we do not see what we saw (our brains interpret what we saw with our eyes so that in our mind’s eye - we neurally see events that we believe we visually saw but this may be considerably different from the actual reality visually seen); and that we never experience or know the ‘now.’

This serves as a direct challenge to any religion based upon testimonial witnesses, such as Christianity. How can we be sure that the eyewitness reports of the Gospels and Epistles, not to mention the prophets, are not flawed? Our knowledge of a substantial delay for awareness shakes up our confidence in our certainties about the reality of the universe. Of course, astronomers and cosmologists are no stranger to this problem. The physical limit to the velocity of light has always demanded a fiction of apprehension for observers of the cosmos. We see the Sun as it was some 8 minutes ago and the further away the objects are from our eyes, the further away in the past we now perceive the objects. Now we add another half a second to everything we perceive with our consciousness. What if, unbeknownst to the subject, the brain induces false memories? The philosopher Richard Joyce points out that every belief has a causal history. We believe a belief not because we know it to be true but because we believe it to be trustworthy. Will tracing a genealogy of our beliefs render them false? Not likely says Joyce,7 but it can certainly render them unjustified. Hence, if brain studies demonstrate that recall of false memories can be triggered by certain factors and these factors existed among the first century gospel witnesses, would this alone falsify the truth of their witness? At the very least it would de-justify their claims. But what exactly are the criteria to satisfy just such an affirmation of events and psychological states in deep time? The purpose of this exercise is not to dilute the truth claims of the biblical witnesses but rather to demonstrate the near impossibility of undermining truth-claims of cognitive witnesses in deep time. Yet, the burden of proof is surely to be borne by the skeptic since there is no possibility of reconstructing the first-person experience of any person today, let alone of witnesses in deep time. This suggests that there are no good reasons either to trust or not to trust the testimony of witnesses based on our apprehension of conscious states of mind.

In any event, is our sense of personal sovereignty is illusory? Neuropsychologists Richard Gregory and Vilayanur Ramachandran point out that “our conscious mind may not have free will, but it does have free won’t.” Cautioning against the reductionist sweep of inferring the sum total of neural activity simply by looking at selected neural circuits, Michael Gazzaniga adds that while brains are automatic, people are free.8

Although neuroscientists are loath to do away with the notion of free will and its attendant burden of moral responsibility, some sociobiologists argue that our behavior is heavily conditioned, if not determined by the chemical balance in our brains. Can we reduce consciousness to brain states?

From the biological exploration of how the brain works in the form of the thinking mind, we seem to observe chemical inhibition of volition as the primary function of moral cognition. This is highly speculative of course, and veers onto the possibility of confusing categories. Can we really say the chemical-mechanical reactions ‘cause’ the experience of moral affection for justice over advantage (John Duns Scotus)? How can we answer Hume’s haunting query, “Whence the causal link?” I fear this is not possible with scientific methods and is unsatisfactory with theological reflection. Indeed, the Dalai Lama himself, an astute student of the human mind, asked if there is a possibility that mental states can cause physiological changes in the brain itself? There is no scientific answer to negate his posture. The reality is that we do not know if the arrow of time and the causal links between brain and mind flow unidirectionally or bidirectionally.

At this stage of our inquiry, we are obliged to caution any overreaching move. Drawing from philosophy, Leibniz’s law states that for A to be the cause of B, the properties of A must be the same as the properties of B. Phenomenologically speaking, the properties of consciousness are unlike the properties of either its neural causes or its correlates.9 Reducing consciousness to a brain state is philosophically problematic. Causation must not be confused with ontology. Neuronal causes and correlates of conscious experiences do not amount to an ontological status. The only evidence we have of consciousness is always first-person accounts, which requires the unscientific notion of trust. The full implications of Libet’s experiments remain inconclusive. We have no scientific mandate to declare consciousness to be illusory – only that selective measures of readiness potential by the instruments we have at present shows that our attentive consciousness appears to be unnecessary for decision-making but is apparent before motor effects take place. This means that short of involuntary actions and our trained reactions to stimuli,10 we gain attention in time to veto any mental decision to act.

The philosopher of mind, John Searle, states that all mental states are caused by neurobiological processes realized in the brain as its higher level or systems features.11 Like Koch and Crick seeking the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), Searle believes that consciousness has a spatial correlate in our brains. He then considers “volitional consciousness” and concludes that every decision we make means that we sense alternative courses of action. Volition begins with reasoning, then to decision, resulting in action. He claims that the physiological character of consciousness explains how consciousness can affect neuronal behavior.12 We can will actions. There is no obstacle to suggest that Searle’s volitional construct has its opposite analogue – a nolitional construct. If Searle is correct, and there is no way to test his hypothesis, a nolitional cause on the neurons of the brains is just as valid as a volitional cause.

In compliance with what we have learned from Libet’s studies, it appears that the free will function of the mind in the brain appears to express cognitive nolition rather than volition. Could moral cognition, like inhibitors in synaptic transmission, be not what we will in our choices but rather what we nill - to restrain the exercise of an act as an example of free choice? This negation of will is always derivative in that it always follows prior freedom to will. The analogy should not be lost to any biblical scholar who notes the divine gift of freedom in the Garden of Eden followed by the qualifier to nill any desire to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

At the very least, Libet’s work implies that our brain acts before we are consciously aware of it. This counter-intuitive direction of causality is not limited to automatic mechanisms such as breathing and heartbeats, but is apparent even in fully cognitive decision-making processes. Libet believes that while we cannot be responsible for our unconscious urges, we can certainly be responsible for our conscious control choices. Perhaps moral cognition and the divine call to holiness involve the choice to nill as well as to will. It appears that neurobiology has not adequately done away with the notion of sin and guilt because freedom of choice remains intact despite the stunning observations of Benjamin Libet.

We now consider the second question. Is the existence of biblical sin a necessary element for the concept of justice and morality? In other words, if there is no guilt, can we seek justice in the name of morality? In our everyday experience, we clearly demand justice and perhaps unwittingly rely on morality to make our case for all our demands. This is because a world without a universal moral grammar could not support any claims to righteousness and hence justice. Most atheistic moral arguments tend to veer towards a social ‘good’ (whatever that means in the absence of morality) that in the end resembles little more than pragmatic adaptive survival strategies writ large. Yet, even this evolutionary naturalism cannot explain why it is more desirable to survive than to perish? That fact that naturalism supposes the supremacy of life over death is unsupported by the argument that no universal moral grammar exists. Let us look to the notion of sin within the context of what is known as the ‘Fall.’

The Christian doctrine of creation offers an answer to the moral nature of the human being. This sub-doctrine is known by its Latin phrase, imago Dei. The formation of man from ‘dust’ includes an endowment (breath of God) that demarcates this species from all others. Perhaps this gift was the capacity for culture what paleoanthropologist, Steven Mithen, calls, cognitive fluidity. This is exemplified in the cultural achievements of art, science, religion and morality. Traditional Christian doctrine teaches that such endowment eventually led Adam and Eve to seek knowledge of right and wrong independent of God’s interpretation. This led to what has become known as the Fall. Their expulsion from Eden was interpreted as a consequence of their fault. How blameworthy was this fault is a different question. What the fall implies in Christian thought is an open question.

The most influential treatment stems from Augustine’s understanding of ‘original sin,’ biologically transmitted by the sexual act going back to Adam and Eve. This demands the imperative of infant baptism. Luther and Calvin further developed this emphasis on human depravity and saw all human effort as tainted. The Anabaptists and Methodists hold to a more optimistic view. The Eastern Orthodox position adopts Irenaeus who saw sin as the result of our creatureliness and consequent immaturity. Human nature is not corrupted by sin but enjoys free will – the choices we make are our own responsibility. Yet our choices are limited by our own immaturity, making us prone to sinfulness. The Roman Catholic tradition of felix culpa or happy fall views the expulsion from Eden as a progressive and positive development. The fall leads to the redemptive action of Christ. This suggests that human suffering is not pointless but has value. Peterson argues that all three positions, original sin, immaturity and felix culpa, offer insights that can help us redescribe theological reflection in the light of modern neuroscience.13

Accepting the theory of unconscious deliberation and volition would call into question:

  1. Blameworthiness of criminal behavior
  2. The impact of mind-altering drugs on personality and responsibility
  3. The traditional doctrine of the Fall and the necessity of atonement
  4. The imperative of soteriology

Typical treatments in scientific studies tend to explain moral choices as sociobiological survival strategies and vestiges of adaptive advantages. This is in part due to the methodological naturalism that scientific investigation entails. A transdisciplinary approach liberates science from its straightjacket and permits a teleological observation without overstepping the boundaries of what makes good science good science.

How does the philosophy of evolutionary morality view moral beliefs? Are they innate? Joyce argues that moral concepts rather than moral beliefs are innate.14 If so, this means that we are born with the capacity to cognize moral concepts but something else triggers our decision to adopt moral beliefs. This seems to reconcile the capacity and volition for moral cognition. Joyce’s distinction between concept and belief converges well with the Christian doctrine that Adam and Eve were created with the capacity (breathed by God) for moral cognition but the trigger was some other event – perhaps the event known as the ‘Fall’.

Using a postfoundational transdisciplinary approach, we may hope that the biological nature of consciousness and volition could find convergence with the Christian theological doctrine of sin and atonement for salvation. We turn to neuropsychology to help us interpret the scriptural texts afresh in developing the doctrine of sin in the light of observed biological reality. Perhaps what Christian theology is concerned with is less the free will of the human species but rather, his free nill. In the context of mental operations of the brain, this refers to our ability to nil volitions. We enjoy the capacity to resist temptations and hence can be held personally responsible for our actions. What appear to be volitions are often our expressions of nolitions. The evolutionary demands of moral cognition impose on humans a sinful predisposition such that we are conditioned but not determined to sin. So how did sinful predisposition arise?

In proposing a critical realist interdisciplinary method for the natural sciences and Christian theology, let us consider a postfoundational approach in which multiple strata of reality correspond to unique rationalities. But since all of reality is the issue of a single creator, we may expect a common resource of rationality where convergence of intelligibility exists in a weak anthropic universe. The Christian doctrine of creation may be redescribed to account for our observation of nature so that transformative (evolutionary and eschatological). Here then is a timeline of Cognitive Sentience.

Human evolution from early hominids to Homo sapiens sapiens involves a long process of increasing biological sentience. With cognitive fluidity occurs along with the co-evolution of brain and symbolic language, giving rise both to the physiological as well as the cognitive capacity for speech. Increasing complexity of biological sentience is accompanied by increased perception as well as the capacity to register pain, causing the agent to suffer trauma when its biological integrity is violated. Protective defense mechanisms developed in response to pain receptors include the subconscious (and hence rapid) response to potential infliction or affliction of biological harm. Among these subconscious neuronal responses is emotional intelligence evolved to overcome genetic dispositions. This is the beginning of cultural evolution for human consciousness.

Some of the subconscious processes become conscious acts of volition. As more and more subconscious reactions become conscious responses, the act of making judgments arise. Judgments are made upon the balance of advantages versus opportunity cost.
Ethical harm is added to the conscious calculation of judgments that influences the final decisions. This is the beginning of justice. Residual subconscious processes survive as cognitive powers of veto, with the accompanying act of nolition. With the complex emergence of art, science and religion comes the possibility of behavior beyond biological adaptation for survival – including human consciousness.

Social conditioning and cultural transfer of information result in awareness and recognition of a universal moral order. This is the beginning of religious cognition. Thus in human cognition, when potential conflicts of interest between personal advantage and divine justice create a climate where reflective decisions made in response to the power of choice (free will) may be judge good or bad by society at large, we have the beginning of a universal moral order – this is how our biological brains became our moral minds. But, WHY? So, that, we can love. The significance of this is the framework it offers for a reinterpretation of the theological doctrine of creation and of humanity.

If sinful predisposition is a necessary behavioral development in response to emotional intelligence and biological adaptation for survival, then the inculcation of the first human species with moral cognition permits the power of nolition. Thus while sinful desires emerge in us, we are equipped with nolitional powers to resist them. That even the worst among us are not in a continuous state of sinful behavior suggests that sin refers to a predisposition rather than to specific acts, hence Jesus’ moral standards that include mental states short of physical acts. This description of sin does not remove the personal responsibility for guilt because it distinguishes the predisposition from the undesirable acts.

In summary, I have shown that current neurobiological inferences do not adequately explain sin as a mere description of evolutionary naturalism, but it does demand a change in the Christian theological interpretation of the ‘Fall’ as a necessary event in the evolution of the human mind through physiological changes in the brain. I have also shown that guilt in sin based on the existence of some universal moral grammar is a necessary component of justice. By using a postfoundational approach to transdiciplinarity, I have traced a timeline of human cognitive sentience to show that an assumption of multiple levels of reality permits philosophy, science and theology to mutually enrich each other’s assessment of the fabric of reality. The example I used is the delicate tension created by a need to conceptualize an interpretation of sin that at once comports with a evolutionary view of cognitive sentience leading to the possibility of sin as a by-product for the possibility of love, and also preserves the biblical treatment of sin as not guilt-free, but associated with personal responsibility.

Selected Bibliography
Blocher, Henri. Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 1997.

Brainerd, C. J. and V. F. Reyna. The Science of False Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.

Brown, Warren S. Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul? Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1998.

Clayton, Philip and Jeffrey Schloss. Ed. Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2004.

Fine, Cordelia. A Mind of Its Own: How the Brain Distorts and Deceives. New York: W. W. Norton. 2006.

Frijda, Nico H., Anthony S. R. Manstead and Sacha Bem, Eds. Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2000.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. New York: HarperCollins. 2006.

Joyce, Richard. The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006.

Kandel, Eric R. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: W. W. Norton. 2006.

Koch,Christof The Quest for Consciousness. Englewood, CO: Roberts and Co. 2004.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking. 2002.

Libet, Benjamin. Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2004.

Michael Pauen, “Does Free Will Arise Freely?” in Scientific American Mind, Volume 14, Number 1: 2004.

Peterson, Gregory R. Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2003.

Richardson, Mark & Wesley Wildman. Eds. Methods and History in Science & Religion. New York: Routledge. 1996.

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 2005.

Searle, John R. Freedom and Neurobiology. New York: Columbia University Press. 2007.

Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2003.

Solomon, Robert C. True to Our Feelings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. Alone in the World: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2006.

1. Described as such by Eric R. Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: W. W. Norton. 2006.

2. Among them is Dr. Sherwin Nuland of Yale Medical School. In an interview on the Charlie Rose Show broadcast on May 28, 2007, Nuland said, “Neuroscience will be the future of our understanding of the human condition.” and that “neuroscientists will discover philosophy and psychoanalysis” and “will confirm what philosophers have known for a very long time.” The Economist recently published an extended feature article on the science of the brain. Both NYU and Columbia have joined MIT, Caltech and other major research institutions in establishing neuroscience centers that collaborate with other disciplines in an effort to understand, among others features of the human mind, the phenomenon of consciousness.

3. A secondary “phenomenon” that occurs alongside a primary phenomenon.

4. Kandel, In Search of Memory, 389.

5. For further discussion, see Michael Pauen, “Does Free Will Arise Freely?” in Scientific American Mind, Volume 14, Number 1: 2004.

6. Benjamin Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004). See chapter 5 for his unified cerebral mental field theory.

7. Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 179.

8. Kandel, In Search of Memory, 390.

9. Christof Koch and Francis Crick coined the phrase neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) in their attempt to prove their hypothesis that consciousness may possess localized correlates in the brain.

10. Examples of these trained reactions would be to run at the sound of the starter’s gun, or a defensive move during martial arts competitions, or evasive moves in response to a pugilist’s opponent.

11. John R. Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 40.

12. Searle, Freedom and Neurobiology, 64.

13. Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2003), 153-154.

14. Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 181.

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