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Friday, July 12, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 4. A better account of human desire.

For the fourth post in this series we will begin an examination in some detail Dr. McFarland's concept of "desire" and how it relates to the "will." The previous posts can be found here, here, and here. At several points in the book McFarland advocates for the proposition that "the will follows desire." In the last post I pointed out that "will" is an analytically useless concept; while the same cannot be said of "desire," I will argue that McFarland fails to make important distinctions between types of desires and how they interact with conscious processes. As a result, he draws incorrect conclusions about how the human personality works. Furthermore, McFarland worded the proposition to avoid two alternatives he regards as errors. First, he rejects the "Pelagian" concept of the "will" as a control center in human consciousness. The "will" simply acts according to a given desire. Second, he rejects the position of many non-Christian compatibilists and hard determinists that human decisions can be fully explained by any combination of "non-personal" causes, such as the state of brain chemistry, sensory input, and other environmental conditions. The will "follows" desire, but it is not "caused" to move in a particular direction in the sense that would entail that God created human beings such that they would be caused to sin. I will argue that he is at least partly wrong about a "control center" function of consciousness and completely wrong about human choices being uncaused by non-personal forces. This is an ambitious counter-program and will take at least a couple of posts to complete. Fasten your seat belts!

In the end, McFarland and I agree on a couple of fundamental points: All human action is motivated and for the most part we do not have a say in what motivates us. Our basic disagreement lies in the implications of these points for human responsibility, which I will address in a future post. In order to build my case against McFarland's account of responsibility, it will be necessary to lay out a better account of the role of "desire" in human decision-making. Some of what I will argue here summarizes points made by William Irvine in On Desire: Why We Want What We Want. For much of the rest I am relying on arguments and evidence presented by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works, and E. O. Wilson in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Don't expect page references. I'm too lazy and pressed for time right now to provide chapter and verse. Besides, every one of these books is worth a complete read. Alright, enough excuses for myself.

My first objection to McFarland's presentation of "desire" is that, while he wants to deal with desire "broadly-conceived" he nevertheless excludes a specific class of desires. As an example, consider what he says here:

For a sweating person to say he does not want to sweat is in this sense analogous to an alcoholic who falls off the wagon saying he does not want to drink: neither event would take place unless there was an underlying desire, and the expression "not wanting" is simply a wish that the desire were not present. Certainly any talk of a nervous person "desiring" to sweat must include the recognition that such "desire" is very different even from the desire for a drink on the part of an alcoholic whose drinking is ruining his life (not to mention from a parent's desire for the well-being of her child); but to completely depersonalize such functions is to risk falling into an anthropological dualism, in which it is somehow more correct to say, This body is sweating," than "I am sweating." (p. 85)
He never explains why the "wish" not to sweat is not a desire, which leaves me to provide an explanation. If he admits that such "wishes" are real desires it threatens his thesis that "will" simply follows desire." It is odd, to say the least, that the automatic sweating response expresses a desire but the very conscious embarassment that may accompany sweating somehow doesn't express a desire! There is nothing wrong with McFarland's claim that the autonomic nervous system's reaction to indications that the body is overheating expresses a desire, broadly-conceived. He errs in refusing to use that language for desires that go unfulfilled either because someone can't counteract opposing, unconscious desires or because she chooses to let the desire go unfulfilled. McFarland's problem is made even more obvious by the way he describes the opposite situation, in which a person's conscious decision processes determine to frustrate a specific desire:
The idea of the impotence of the will to free itself from sin should not be read in terms of a psychological description of the dynamics of temptation, as though the affirmation of original sin were an empirical statement about the ability of the will to engage in or refrain from a particular behavior [emphasis mine] (e.g., an alcoholic's ability to stay on the wagon). To confess the reality of original sin is not to claim that people cannot resist giving in to particular impulses [emphasis mine] (which they quite evidently can), but rather to reject the conceptual reduction of sin to the choice of evil over good.
McFarland's claim that the affirmation of original sin is not an empirical statement raises some problems that I hope to address in a later post. Notice how the alcoholic's desire to drink in the first quote has been suddenly transformed into a "behavior" or an "impulse" in the second quote. Why the different language? Because when a person successfully resists an impulse she is following a desire. Since McFarland's position is that the will follows desire and if there are conflicting desires it appears to make the will an independent arbiter between desires (and hence cut free from an intelligible account of human actions), one must deny that humans really ever have conflicting desires. McFarland never explicitly denies that humans have conflicting desires, but he does render a rather odd diagnosis of the "divided will" that underscores my point:
The problem -- the point of existential crisis that undergirds Augustine's analysis -- is that human beings can't want what they want. It is this incapacity that is the source of the experience of the divided will: we do what we desire, invariably -- but what we desire remains beyond our control. (p 75)
Yet it is a common human perception that "you can't always get what you want" and one of the reasons you can't is that you often have to choose between conflicting desires. It's not that you "wish" your desires were different; you don't have that wish at all. It's that you want to satisfy both desires and can't pull it off. One or the other will have to go unfulfilled. McFarland's theory leaves no room for this common human dilemma, and for that reason alone it is cruelly inhumane.

Underlying this misdiagnosis of the "divided will" is an oversimplified understanding of how human desiring works. According to most theorists, the brain acts like a fractious committee. The committee members represent various mental modules responsible for some facet of organismic function. Some of these modules are "stupid whiners" that, given the right sensory inputs, bombard some other set of brain circuits with requests to satisfy a given desire. In the committee analogy, these whiners harass their neighboring committee members or the chairperson with demands for more food, more drink, more sex, etc. The mental modules are constantly at work on sensory input from inside and outside the body, exchanging information with each other and with brain circuits that contribute to conscious thought and sending to other parts of the nervous system, including -- sometimes -- consciousness the results of their processing. Some of the results produced by "whiner" modules end up in control centers that process the results through a decision tree and send instructions to other parts of the body about an action to take in order to satisfy the "whiners." The activity stimulated by these control centers produces new input for the "whiner" modules that either dampens or inflames their demands. Some of these control centers are not in consciousness; others are. The unconscious control centers are like an independently-minded subcommittee that decides to take action without the knowledge or consent of the committee as a whole, and if they bother to report their decision to the committee at all, they do so after the decision has been taken. In many cases the committee as a whole only finds out about it after the consequences of the decision come in. At the conscious level, where our experiences are relatively integrated, surprising, unexpected, and unwelcome interruptions from these "whiners" can break into awareness, interrupting the flow of our thoughts, rearranging our sensory perceptions, and raising or lowering our emotions. It is currently a matter of controversy as to whether our conscious minds ever really "make" a reasoned decision about the demands of the "whiners." Many theorists believe that our decisions are delivered to consciousness whole by unconscious control centers and our conscious thought processes simply come up with rationalizations for a decision already made for reasons unknown. Personally, I doubt this is always true and submit the development of modern science as a counter-example. There is no reason to suppose that any unconscious control center shaped by natural selection would prefer humans to study quarks and the history of life over the study of how to produce more offspring. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated experimentally that sometimes people who have no idea why they are motivated to take a particular action will, in the absence of an identifiable reason, invent totally false explanations. I hope to expand on this point in the upcoming post on responsibility.

For our present purposes it is sufficient to notice that several mental modules may be stimulating other parts of the brain to satisfy desires at the same time. Consider all the functions performed simultaneously by the autonomic nervous system, such as regulating breathing, heartbeat, and body temperature. Since each of these feedback systems operates at least partly independently of the others, that makes for three separate "desires" the human person is satisfying at one time. McFarland does not discuss the idea of simultaneous, harmonious desires, but I see no reason why he could not have incorporated them into his theory as it stands. Where his theory runs into trouble is in the case of conflicting simultaneous desires. Consider, for example, the case of an antelope approaching a drinking hole on the African savannah. The desire for water drives the antelope to the drinking hole, but before drinking the antelope carefully studies the surroundings for signs of a predator. A scent, the sound of movement in the grass, or the sight of a sudden movement will cause a panicked flight response and the antelope's desire for water will go unsatisfied for the time being. The flight response is instinctive in many species, human beings included. In other words, via natural selection many species' brains include prioritization functions which reorder desires based on predetermined criteria so that satisfaction of the desire most likely to promote the reproductive success of the animal gets the highest priority.

Irvine develops this idea in more detail in his book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want with the concept of a "biological incentive system." This incentive system is a result of natural selection's fine-tuning of the nervous system in many species to produce in the brains of individuals emotions that reward them when they act in ways that promote reproduction and punish them when they are in situations that threaten their ability to reproduce. This incentive system predates human beings by tens of millions of years at least. In mammals the flight response, for example, is accompanied by the fear emotion, in response to which the reflexive flight response is amplified by "intentional" movement to escape from danger or mount a defense. The incentive system also provides us with a ready-made framework for prioritizing desires. As a result, when we encounter situations in which multiple desires are clamoring for satisfaction but we are not able to satisfy them all at the same time, one or more control centers in the brain have prebuilt decision trees that help us prioritize the desires and attempt to satisfy the highest-priority desire first. Since this incentive system was built to promote reproductive success, not human happiness, in an environment far different from that in which most modern humans find themselves, it sometimes works against our long-term personal interests. Classic examples include disastrous male philandering and persistent overeating.

Clearly, then, our actions and decisions are all motivated. They are all aimed to fulfill a "desire." In that regard, admitting that we have conflicting desires and sometimes intentionally leave desires unfulfilled is no real threat to McFarland's claim that "will follows desire." Leaving aside for a moment our criticism of McFarland's use of the word "will," we must yet ask, "Which desire?" The process of natural selection, which shaped the biological incentive system, has as a final goal the maximized reproductive success of the individual possessing a given set of genes. In the end, it is the spread of the genes which measures success. Humans, however, are usually not consciously motivated by their success at spreading their genes. What moves them to action are emotions. In the end, what measures success is satisfaction, happiness, joy. Irvine calls these feelings "final desires." They are intrinsically motivating. In contrast, instrumental desires are desires for things that will satisfy final desires. Although our brains have been adapted to reward us with satisfying emotions when we perform acts that promote our ability to reproduce, that doesn't always work to our benefit. Sometimes we are driven to pursue counterproductive instrumental desires because in our ancestral environment getting these things yielded reproductive success and mutations that increased a sense of pleasure when obtaining those things yielded even more reproductive success. Maybe getting those things no longer increases reproductive success and so our sense of pleasure is dashed by bad consequences or maybe getting those things produces reproductive success at the cost of making us miserable because the environment has changed in some fundamental way.

"Virtuous" features of human nature, such as altruism, empathy, conscience, and even the sensus divinitatus have also been shaped by natural selection. Each of these characteristics has been calibrated in our long pre-history to reward our genes with increased reproductive success. There is debate about whether and/or which current cultural expressions of these characteristics are adaptations or by-products, especially in the case of the sensus divinitatus. At root, however, human "virtuous" desires arose by essentially the same processes as human "vicious" desires in the course of evolutionary history.

This brief account of the evolutionary origins of desire leads to a couple of observations about McFarland's arguments. First is the matter of control. McFarland asserts that we cannot help but "sin" even after conceding that humans can exercise some control over behaviors motivated by sinful desires, such as alcoholics abstaining from drinks. His thesis is that although human beings can exercise some control over their behaviors they have no way of controlling their desires. This is partially false. A classic case is addictions. Changes in the body's biochemistry brought about by the introduction of an addictive foreign substance can be reversed. Among these changes is the reduction or elimination of the craving response that occurs when the level of the foreign substance in the blood drops. These cravings certainly count as "desires" by McFarland's definition and in fact are final desires by Irvine's definition, since satisfying this type of desire is intrinsically motivating. On the other hand, changing final desires that are genetically-programmed is much more difficult. By the use of drugs and/or surgery it is possible to temporarily or even permanently suppress sexual desire. Other final desires, such as hunger or thirst, are at least as difficult to modify even temporarily. Instrumental desires springing from these, such as the desire to have sex with one particular individual tonight or a desire to drink a second cup of water after a morning jog are usually much easier to modify by various physical and/or mental operations. In our ongoing battle with our own maladjusted desires humans have been slowly but surely gaining more control over not only how our desires are expressed but the desires themselves. Nevertheless, these techniques do not change the fundamental structure of human desiring. In that sense, McFarland is correct that we are not in control of our desires. On the other hand, the discovery of the human genome is a potential game-changer. It is conceivable that at some point in the not too distant future humans will have learned enough about the human genome to introduce mutations that could stimulate the development of entirely new desires or the entire elimination of existing desires. Whether either of these outcomes is desirable or beneficial is beside the point.

Gaining increased control over human desires by itself does not necessarily threaten McFarland's conception of original sin. For one thing, all of these methods of controlling desire can be ascribed to the operation of God's grace. Human discoveries about the biological basis of human desiring and techniques that can be used to inflame or suppress desire would be consequences of God's common grace, according to traditional Reformed doctrine. Even the modification of the structure of human desiring via manipulations of the human genome and/or drug therapy in early development, for example, could be described as operations of God's common grace. In fact, everything good done by human beings who are not (yet) born again into the community of God's people is a consequence of God's common grace. This classical understanding of the relationship between God's grace and human "goodness" lies behind the assertion of Henri Blocher, whom McFarland mistakenly targets for criticism on this score, that humans sin when they can and as much as they can. Blocher's assessment assumes the operations of God's common grace in the lives of non-Christian sinners. Left completely to themselves, human beings would quickly devolve into utter wickedness. At every point it is God's gracious operations that restrain, resist, and channel human sinfulness and stimulate human virtue in the non-elect. It is by this means alone that we are not "as bad as we can be." McFarland's implied universalism could rule out the existence of a separate, "common" grace and classify all grace as "saving" grace. Regardless, McFarland would no doubt also ascribe any true human goodness exhibited by any human being whatsoever as a consequence of God's gracious operations, rather than some innate human power to pursue the good. On the other hand, I doubt very strongly that McFarland would be happy to classify genome manipulation or drug therapy as operations of God's grace.

The evolutionary shaping of human desires also leads me to ask some pointed questions about desiring God above all else. What kind of desire is this? What stimulates it? What brain structures are involved in its expression? What role does evolution play in producing it? McFarland attempts answers to none of these questions. It seems to me that he needs to.

I reserve discussion of desire and causation for the next post.

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 3. The "will" is an analytically useless concept.

This post is third in a series. See here and here for the previous posts. In this post I want to elaborate on my second criticism of the book. McFarland's thesis touches on several areas of anthropology that have been subjects of extensive research, and yet he employs almost none of it. Had he done so, either he would have modified his thesis significantly, or he would have plunged into self-defeating apologetical moves designed to cast doubt on the legitimacy or standard interpretation of the science.

First, a quick review of the book's Bibliography and reference notes reveals that McFarland has exactly one reference to a contemporary work of scientific research, the paper "Y Chromosome Sequence Variation and the History of Human Populations" in Nature Genetics 26:3 (Nov., 2000), 358-61 by Underhill, Peidong-Shen, Lin, et. al. This includes secondary works or even popular overviews. Since the fact of biological evolution counts heavily in his argument that the doctrine of original sin needs to be reconceptualized, you would think that he would have made more use of it. He does refer to a secondary work by Philip Hefner, the Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion, who apparently did try to incorporate some contemporary evolutionary science into a discussion of the sources of human behavior, but McFarland dismisses that work in a footnote without addressing any of the science behind it. In fact, according to McFarland Hefner argued that the experience of a divided will is a consequence of the conflict between genetically "hard-wired," "selfish" behaviors and cultural demands for cooperation and altruism. I don't know who is responsible for this way of framing the conclusions of evolutionary theory, Hefner or McFarland (see my comments here about McFarland's generally accurate summaries of others' views), but either way it is inaccurate. There are no "hard-wired" behaviors. What is hard-wired is brain circuitry that under a normal process of development will produce a predictable pattern of behavior. Furthermore, the "demand" for altruism and cooperation is not ultimately a product of culture but of genes. The particular form in which cooperation and altruism occur is shaped by culture, but being cooperative and altruistic comes about by "prepared learning," i.e., we are hard-wired to learn these behaviors, at least to some degree. McFarland's dismissal of Hefner is telling: "The theological problem with this line of argument is that it makes original sin part of humanity's nature as created and thus not a result of any defect in willing." (p. 162) OK, so McFarland is going to explain how the findings of sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and brain scientists can be interpreted so that original sin is not part of humanity's nature as created? What about sexual selection, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, "cheater-detection?" Not mentioned anywhere. No citations of the work of Hamilton, Trivers, Williams, Cosmides and Tooby, de Waal. This is especially noteworthy for de Waal, who is a colleague of McFarland's at Emory University! So much for collegiality! Seriously? Whether this is due to ignorance or a decision that this body of work is irrelevant to his thesis hardly matters. He should have known about it and should have addressed it.

Now to tackle some specifics. Much of McFarland's book is taken up with the status and powers of the human "will" and its relationship to other features of human nature. In short, to borrow a criticism E. O. Wilson leveled against economists, McFarland assumes the validity of a particular brand of folk psychology. This particular brand has a very long and distinguished career, reaching back into antiquity. Trouble is, it is not science and relying on it leads McFarland into some serious errors. His first error is to argue that all human activity is "willed." Many times in the book McFarland provides a brief definition of what he means by "will." Typical is the following summary of Augustine's view of the "will," with which he basically agrees: "for Augustine the will is a comparatively unproblematic and not especially mysterious entity. It simply marks out human beings as the particular kind of creatures they are: personal agents. Agents are beings whose actions are naturally mediated by their wills.... For Augustine to say that humans will whatever they do is imply to affirm that I, as a human being, naturally describe my acts as what I do, even when I have no ability to choose otherwise (e.g., 'I hear the car alarm outside the window,' or to cite a favorite example of Augustine's, 'I wish to be happy.'" (pp. 63-4)

This view of "will" is so expansive that it includes "involuntary" actions, such as events in the autonomic nervous system. As McFarland explains in his assessment of Augustine's views:
There are a number of problems that accompany Augustine's analysis of human sexuality, but one of the most obvious is the way in which he treats the will's lack of control over sexual function as somehow, exceptional, ignoring the fact it is but one of an enormous range of human biological processes that are equally removed from the realm of conscious choice: hunger, fatigue, sweating, immune response, and the like. Particularly, from an evolutionary perspective, it would be strange indeed to follow Augustine in viewing the "involuntary" status of such processes as evidence of declension from an original (and putatively more ideal) state of conscious control over them. Their "automatic" character has positive survival value, since (for example) it is much more efficient if the body's ability to cool itself does not depend on a conscious decision to open one's pores. More importantly, however, the fact that such processes are not subject to conscious control need not be seen as making them any less matters of will, if the latter is understood simply as the mode by which human beings experience themselves as agents. After all, individuals naturally say, "I hungered," or "I'm sweating," using the first-person pronoun just as they do when saying things like, "I picked up the shovel," or "I'm going to the ballgame today." The degree to which these various actions are "voluntary" (i.e., matters of conscious choice) varies widely, but all remain ineluctably part of one's identity (i.e., who I am). (pp. 72-73)

Before we rip into these claims, let's acknowledge McFarland's appropriation of the evolution of the autonomic nervous system. And yes, this fact raises the issue of what other human activities take place "under the radar" of human consciousness and hence, beyond conscious control. In this regard McFarland is on the right track. In chapter 4, he pulls in the views of Maximus the Confessor to correct problems he sees in Augustine's approach to the "will." In particular, McFarland criticizes Augustine for retaining the Pelagian idea that the human "will" ever could or was meant to act as a control center over desires. He says Augustine would have been better off sticking with his insight that the "will" follows desire consistently. Maximus helps out with his distinction between the "natural will" and the "gnomic will." McFarland notes that Maximus developed this distinction in the context of the monothelite controversy. While the germ of the distinction can be found in his earlier writings, his desire to defend the position that Christ had both a human and a divine "will" drove him to distinguish clearly between the "natural will" and "gnomic will." All human beings except Christ have both types, Christ had only the "natural" human will. "Given that Maximus explicitly associates the gnomic will with the powers of deliberation and decision -- effectively with the ability to choose between options -- his defense of Jesus' consubstantiality with the human race risks being subverted from the outset, since the significance of Jesus' solidarity with us in possessing a natural will seems inconsistent with the denial that his willing is marked by those features connected with choice that we are inclined to view as most central to human freedom." (pp. 93-94). Indeed. Nevertheless, McFarland believes that Maximus works his way out of this apparent dilemma. Since Maximus's views are central to McFarland's own position, I will risk an extended citation and reserve comment until the end:

In order to address these concerns, it is necessary to explore in greater detail why Maximus introducted the distinction between natural and gnomic wills. Prior to the monothelite controversy, Maximus treats thelēma and gnomē as synonyms and, correspondingly, has no difficulty in ascribing a gnomē to Christ. Already in one of his earliest extant writings, however, there is a foreshadowing of the later distinction. Maximus describes humanity's end as "to have one gnomē and one thelēma with God and with one another," while at the same time noting that the fall has blocked this process by introducing a division within the will that causes us "to turn from the natural movement ... to what is forbidden." This contrast between the will's "natural movement" on the one hand and its capacity to turn from nature on the other parallels the later distinction between the natural and gnomic wills. It was only in confronting the monothelite identification of Christ's will with his divine hypostasis, however, that Maximus found it necessary to cast this distinction in technical terminology.

As already noted, Maximus' immediate theological concern in confronting monothelitism was to affirm the theological principle that Christ could only redeem the will if the will were part of the nature that he assumed in the incarnation. This correlation of the will with nature is the basis for the category of the natural will. And through the claim that will was a constitutive feature of human nature had the effect of reducing the will to one among many such faculties, no diminishement of the will's significance was thereby intended. On the contrary, Maximus is quite clear that the natural will is the most significant of humanity's faculties, since it "holds everything together," and "we exist in and through it" in a way that is not true of other aspects of our nature. Indeed, the supreme importance of the natural will in Maximus' anthropology is illustrated by its persistent identification with human agency. Nevertheless, Maximus' analysis of the natural will suggests that such agency is distinct from freedom of choice. For Maximus the primary manifestation of the natural will is in our natural appetites:

For by this power [of the will] alone we naturally desire being, life, movement, understanding, speech, perception, nourishment, sleep, refreshment, as well as not to suffer pain or to die -- quite simply to possess fully everything that sustains the nature and to lack whatever harms it."

Clearly, we do not desire sleep or food because we choose to do so; on the contrary, Maximus' whole point is that such desires are natural. The do not need the presence of a will to manifest themselves, as is clear from the fact that animals, too, naturally seek life and avoid death. What is distinctive about human beings is what it means for them to desire something naturally. For whereas other sentient beings desire rest or flee pain by instinct (and thus by compulsion), human beings do so "in and through" the will (and therefore freely):

For that which is rational by nature has a natural power that is a rational appetite [logikēn orexin], which is also called the will [thelēsis] of the intellective soul. And by this power we reason willingly [thelontes logizometha]; and when we have reasoned, we desire willingly [thelontes boulometha].

In short, for Maximus the natural will is that property whereby we do whatever we do as responsible agents rather than mechanically or by instinct. It follows that if Christ is confessed as fully human (i.e., a genuinely human agent rather than a divine ghost in a biochemical machine), he must have a human natural will.

What then of the gnomic will? In line with description of the fall in his early letter to John the Cubicularius, Maximus understands sin as the product of a gnomē that has turned from what is natural; yet it would be a mistake to conclude that he simply identifies the gnomic will with fallenness, since he has no difficulty acknowledging that it can conform to God's will. Yet if the gnomic will is not inherently sinful, it is intimately connected with the possibility of sin, for it is understood in terms of the capacity to choose between options -- including especially good and evil. Maximus assssociates this capacity with a will that does not enjoy the eschatological state of immediate conformity to God's will, arguing that short of this state willing is a complex process that moves from desire (boulēsis) through deliberation (boulē or bouleusis) to the actualization of the results of deliberation in choice (prohairesis)

Deliberation is crucial to Maximus' understanding of the gnomic will. It is correlated with the ignorance and doubt that are characteristic of the will that has not yet been deified: we deliberate about those things which are within the scope of our will, but the implications of which are unclear to us -- and under the conditions of history, that includes everything that we will. Because our deliberation can go either well or badly, we have the capacity to deviate from our natural end, and our willing is, correspondingly, mutable. Though inseparable from our nature as responsible agents, the gnomic character of our willing under conditions of historical existence leaves open the possibility of deviating from nature. In the fall this possibility was actualized in a way that continues to render human beings disposed to sin. Whether or not we sin in any particular instance, however, our status as pilgrims dictates that our earthly actions are invariably characterized by the process of gnomic deliberation and choice.

It appears to me that, by bringing the activities of the autonomic nervous system under the category of "willing," McFarland has gone beyond what both Augustine and Maximus intended and has landed himself in contradictions. He never qualifies his repeated assertion that "willing" includes involuntary actions such as sweating, leaving me at least to conclude that he means by this not only activities that take place while we are aware of them -- but can't control them -- but also activities that take place without our awareness, or even without our consciousness. Thus, a nocturnal emission is "willed," as is the heartbeat of a person in a coma. As his summary and criticism of Augustine's view on the relationship between sexual desire and "will" makes clear, for Augustine sexual desire is present in human beings apart from their "willing" it. Presumably, for Augustine, a nocturnal emission is not a sin because the will did not consent to having the desire or carrying out the action, whereas, apparently, for McFarland it would be a "willed" act. His citation from Maximus indicates that Maximus' idea of the "natural will" involved a transition from a "willing" reasoning to a "willing" desire. The involvement of "reasoning" in this process appears to exclude events that take place "under the radar" of consciousness, since we have no opportunity to reason about them. And in fact, McFarland provides no citations from Maximus that indicate how he would have classified events in the autonomic nervous system. The best we can get from McFarland's book on this matter is Maximus' apparent reliance on the views of that eminent psychologist, Cyril of Alexandria, who said, "nothing natural is involuntary in a rational creature." Unfortunately, Cyril's statement is an analytic, not empirical, claim. When McFarland meets one of these "rational creatures" I would love to be introduced. Cyril's definition certainly does not apply to human beings. Most of what happens in our bodies and minds takes place without our conscious awareness and therefore without any "reasoning." This is such a basic finding of psychology that it is shocking McFarland did not explicitly introduce it into his discussion of Maximus's idea of the "natural will." Either Maximus was operating from a seriously defective understanding of human nature or his conception of the extent of the operations of the "natural will" was far more restricted than McFarland supposes. And this is where McFarland (or Maximus, if McFarland represents him fairly) really steps in it. Notice the end of the last citation: "Whether or not we sin in any particular instance, however, our status as pilgrims dictates that our earthly actions are invariably characterized by the process of gnomic deliberation and choice." Wait a minute, what about sweating? Didn't McFarland assert that sweating is an act of "will," and didn't he furthermore insist that this type of "willing" involves no conscious control and hence no choice, and doesn't that make this type of willing an example of the "natural will" that Maximus now denies ever takes place among humans in this world?

However McFarland chooses to resolve this dilemma, he needs to consider carefully another issue raised by his insistence that events in the autonomic nervous system are "willed." Modern psychology has largely dispensed with the "will" as a descriptive term for human mental activity, except as a simplification for popular audiences. As a technical term, "will" is useless. In its place psychologists have arrayed a whole series of mental processes that involve relatively more or less conscious thought and/or "control." The terminology used to describe these various processes varies, but it is generally the case that they are conceived as roughly running along a continuum from totally unconscious to almost entirely conscious and self-aware. McFarland would certainly concede this point. Where he would disagree with modern psychologists is over their assessment of how these various processes relate to "agency" and the concept of "responsibility." Psychologists generally tend to locate "agency" and "responsibility" at the fully conscious and self-aware end of the continuum. McFarland wants these concepts to cover the entire continuum. In a later post I will discuss in fuller detail the whole issue of McFarland's use of "responsibility." For now it suffices to point out that there are good reasons for psychologists to do this, McFarland's nearly slanderous accusation that their concept of the "will" is derived from consumer culture notwithstanding. As I pointed out in an earlier post, popular consumer culture does not necessarily promote the idea of an "autonomous" will, free from constraints of desire or other unconscious influence. No, the idea that volition or decision-making is most properly understood to take place with an awareness of all the factors influencing one's decision is an outgrowth of modern legal and psychological thought. In other words, McFarland did not take seriously modern approaches to the relationship between genetics, development, neurobiology, and adult brain function in his assessment of what should count as "volitional" activity. Given that his views run against a virtual consensus, it behooved him to contrast his views explicitly with those of a representative, well-qualified scientist so that the reader could weigh his objections to the consensus more fairly.

McFarland employs a traditional distinction between the activity of humans and other animals. Since we have "wills" our natural activities are performed "freely," whereas other animals exhibiting the same behaviors are doing so under the compulsion of instinct. Nowhere does McFarland qualify this distinction. In this he is in accord with the long list of thinkers who believed in human exceptionalism. We are a unique species by virtue of our rationality, language abilities, sensus divinitatus, etc. For those in this group who accept evolutionary theory, humans have managed to escape the grip of natural selection. As a consequence, our mental faculties, cultures, societies, religions, laws, etc., cannot be understood from an evolutionary standpoint. We do little or nothing on the basis of inborn tendencies (instincts). Instead, nearly everything distinctive about human beings is a result of enculturation -- to put it simply -- learning. Extreme forms of this view virtually deny that there is a fixed human nature. While McFarland is not this radical his reliance on the distinction between "instinct" and "will" puts him decisively in the exceptionalist camp. In recent decades this view has come under sustained criticism as evidence for instinctual features of human nature has mounted. The human genome retains, in common with its mammalian relatives, numerous genes that encode proteins which in turn, under normal developmental conditions, catalyze the growth of specific brain structures. These brain structures, interacting with the rest of the developing body, bias our emotional and intellectual development so that we generally end up with a distinctive set of common characteristics. These common characteristics include relatively simple emotional reactions such as laughing and crying as well as complicated perceptive and language tasks.

It is hard to see how McFarland could fit these discoveries into his scheme. Instead, his hard and fast distinction between "instinct" and "will" lumps the social behavior of chimpanzees and ants into one category and that of humans into a different category. Given the shared evolutionary history of chimpanzees and humans, their similarities in body structure and particularly brain structure and function, emotions, and social organization, it is hard to see on what basis he can call chimpanzee social hierarchies, for example, purely a consequence of "instinct" and human social hierarchies purely a consequence of "will." Of course, human brains have adapted much more fully than chimpanzee brains into the "cognitive niche" and humans alone of existing species use language, which is certainly a huge differentiator. Nevertheless, it is fairly clear now that human beings and chimpanzees perform similar behaviors in response to similar environmental conditions and accompanied by similar mental processes, that these behaviors originated in a common ancestral species, and that these behaviors continue to be practiced because of developmental biases (instincts) passed down to us in our genes. Given that McFarland wants the "will" to be implicated in even the events in the autonomic nervous system, it is hard to see how he can avoid ascribing a "will" to chimpanzees, any more than he can deny humans have instincts, unless he himself also believes that human consciousness is "a divine ghost in a biochemical machine," as he charges against Pelagianism.

McFarland's adoption of Maximus' "gnomic will" is intended to show that decision-making is something humans engage in to resolve conflicts between desires and so settle on the action most likely to satisfy our (inherently distorted) desires. But decision-making evolved as a survival mechanism not a pleasure principle. Over the long period of human prehistory decision-making often involved choosing between outcomes, not desires. Over the course of eons mammals' emotions have evolved to stimulate the mammalian brain to take actions that will increase chance of successful reproduction. We experience "happiness" or "pleasure" when we achieve states that have been associated with increased reproductive success in our evolutionary past. In this way "desires" move us to action, but in the "cognitive niche" motives are insufficient to promote survival and so humans have needed a capacity weigh and select among alternative courses of action. By adapting to life in the "cognitive niche," humans have the capacity to imagine the possible future consequences of different responses to environmental challenges. The capacity to weigh those consequences against an ideal future scenario and then to select the course of action most likely to bring about the ideal future is what enabled us to break out of the African savannah and settle new, unfamiliar environments in a heartbeat of evolutionary time. It is in this limited regard that we have "escaped" natural selection. Natural selection has no way to determine what kinds of mutations will occur in a species. The process simply eliminates mutations that do not promote reproductive success. Whatever series of mutations enabled us to combine symbols imaginatively and conceive alternative futures, natural selection could not stop us from being able to reflect back on its own activities, discover them, and then attempt to seize control of them for our own purposes. Whether we are really capable of successfully manipulating the process of natural selection in order to achieve our own goals (say, increased individual human happiness or the elimination of overpopulation) remains to be seen. If we fail, the evidence of that failure will be human extinction, possibly by a catastrophic die-off and/or replacement by a closely-related anthropoid species. If we succeed, it is no sign that we have "escaped" natural selection, only that we have learned how to manipulate the process so that its results align more closely with conscious human desires.

This evolutionary account of the rise of human decision-making provides an adequate explanation for the near universal human preference for being "free to choose" courses of action. As E. O. Wilson put it, loss of one's sense of being able to exercise options at need leads to a deadly passivity in the face of danger. Natural selection tends to produce in humans emotions that promote behaviors leading to increased reproduction. A person who delights in proactively deciding about her own future and becomes angry when deprived of this opportunity can thank the millions of successful human ancestors whose decisions preserved the lives of their descendants. This account raises doubts about Maximus' idea that the "gnomic will" will disappear in the "deified" state of human existence. According to McFarland, "gnomic will" is just the mode under which human wills act when confronted with ignorance and doubt. In the deified state human beings will no longer desire to have "freedom to choose" or miss the opportunity to make a conscious, reasoned choice because all room for doubt or uncertainty will be removed. Maximus seemed to think that God's will would flow into the consciousness of glorified humans sufficiently to remove any cause of doubt about what God wished for them to do at any moment, for eternity. If this is correct, the whole course of human evolution was largely a waste of time. Our bodies and minds were shaped into their present form because they succeeded in enabling us to overcome perplexing environmental challenges. If in the "deified" state our ignorance and doubt disappear, human beings in the "deified" state will be either a quite different kind of being from what they have been up until now or exceedingly unhappy. And we have to ask, what made Maximus so certain that finite human beings would not encounter ignorance and doubt in their "deified" state? It is quite easy to imagine God introducing glorified human beings to some new type of being he has created and withholding from the glorified human beings crucial knowledge about how to make this new creature flourish. Furthermore, he could easily choose to withhold knowledge of his own will for the new creature from glorified humans, leaving them in a state of suspended action, waiting for further instruction from God himself about what to do. He could then instruct the human beings to choose from a number of courses of action designed to promote the new creature's well being and intentionally withhold from the glorified human beings which of those courses he wants them to choose. And is there any good reason to suppose that glorified humans would find being left to solve the puzzle on their own anything less than exhilirating? Perhaps McFarland would like to explain why such a scenario is impossible in the future state.

In what appears to be in McFarland's favor we must concede that the capacity to make decisions has significant costs as well as benefits. Maximus and McFarland focus on the cost of "choosing poorly" in the ethical sense. Though this is a critical issue, it is only one cost of decision-making. Given that we are a social species, a mistaken decision, regardless of the motives, regarding when to pull up stakes and migrate can cost one's entire band their lives. For that reason alone human cultures quickly developed protocols to decrease the likelihood that choices would go wrong. One way to do this is to increase the number of situations in which one can simply replay past decisions that were successful. Furthermore, conscious choice consumes precious time and energy. For these reasons, conscious decision-making is an anxiety-fused exercise. Humans take all kinds of steps to reduce the number of decisions we have to make. Habit formation, morals, laws, traditions all play a role in limiting choice and with it the likelihood that a choice will go wrong. These limitations on choice, even when they grate on us, are ultimately designed not to eliminate choices but only to increase the likelihood that choices will lead to successful outcomes. Of course, natural selection has favored mutations that increase our chances of making choices that lead to reproductive success, whereas in our concious minds we tend to want to increase the chance that our choices will make us happy. I reserve comment on the fact that these two outcomes are not always compatible for the next post in this series. For now it is enough to note that decision-making is not just a mode of a presumed "hypostasis" but a fundamental feature of human nature built into us over our long evolutionary history and indispensable to our survival and happiness.

I have much more to say about McFarland's failure to deal with modern discoveries about humans when we discuss his handling of the relationship between "will" and "desire" in the next post.

A Critical Review of:Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 2. A Misinterpretation of modern culture.

In the preface to the book, McFarland sums up the general attitude toward the doctrine of original sin among contemporary North Americans as follows: "The idea that we are all guilty because of an ancestor's misdeed is viewed as morally outrageous and historically incredible, summing for many everything that is wrong with Christianity." (p ix.) I couldn't have put it better. McFarland is not deterred. The aim of the book, he says, is to challenge that perception.

In order to do so, however, he must also clear some ground. The tradition of the church has left us with a "Hobson's choice" in its teaching on original sin. On traditional understandings, no matter which we favor, we are stuck in a dilemma of having to choose between a fundamental equality of all humans at the cost of whitewashing crucial differences or focusing on human difference at the cost of denying human equality. He proposes a solution to the dilemma and a challenge to the negative perception of the doctrine of original sin:

The chapters that follow are my attempt to examine this dimension of human equality before God, in the conviction that the doctrine of original sin, though one of the most unsettling aspects of Christian teaching, is also stimulating and productive for the life of faith. In reaction to a wide range of criticisms leveled against the idea of original sin, a number of Christian theologians in the modern period have attempted to develop a doctrine of sin in which the idea of original sin is heavily qualified or even rejected. Against these perspectives, I will argue that it is not only theologically defensible, but inseparable from the confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Indeed, I will defend the doctrine in what is arguably its most extreme form, as developed by Augustine and later defended in the Reformed theological tradition under the designation of "total depravity" -- the claim that no aspect of our humanity is untouched by sin. Yet what follows is not simply a restatement of earlier positions, because modern critics raise questions that cannot be ignored about how the doctrine has been defended and deployed in the past, even if (as I shall try to show) these questions can be answered in ways that confirm the place of original sin within the logic of Christian faith.(pp. x-xi)

No one can fault McFarland for a lack of courage. He is prepared to take on not only a modern consensus but also his own forebears and mentors in the faith. I intend to show that his challenge to the modern perception fails. His own explication of the doctrine of original sin, though clearly different from and in some ways better than traditional formulations, remains both morally outrageous and incredible. My basic approach will be to show that his characterization of "modern perception" is oversimplified. Furthermore, he appears to be largely unaware of the progress made by sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and brain scientists at unlocking the biological bases of human nature as shaped by evolution. These discoveries have huge implications for Christian doctrines about human nature, most of which McFarland apparently has not explored. I will show that they thoroughly undermine his reconstruction of original sin. The book maintains a laser focus on the issue of original sin. I will point out that McFarland's reconstruction raises serious questions about his conception of justice and his soteriology. His failure to address these issues leaves him open to misunderstanding. Or worse, I may understand him all too well. In that case his silence amounts to self-deception at best. Finally, I will show how McFarland, in an attempt to avoid the "Hobson's choice" he mentioned above, lands himself in contradictions.

The remainder of this post will focus on my first criticism of McFarland, that his characterization of "modern perception" is oversimplified. He presents the following summary on pp 5-6:

The consumerist anthropology that shapes so much of contemporary western culture is predicated on a model of freedom in which choice is determined exclusively by the will of the chooser. To be sure, possible objects of choice are constrained by material circumstances, (e.g., a person with neither money nor credit cannot buy a hat), and the choices one makes may entail consequences that are not themselves desired by the chooser (e.g., someone who steals a hat is subject to arrest); but the act of choosing itself is conceived as radically private and autonomous: the individual is finally responsible only to herself for what she chooses. Within the consumerist paradigm, a person's choices will certainly affect other people and will themselves be affected by other people's advice and opinions; but however much such relationships may impact the calculus of choice, they remain external to the act of choosing, which can always be abstracted from them as a decision that is essentially by and for the self. The moral character of an individual's acts is, correspondingly, determined by assessment of her capacities and intentions.

Huh? Huh? As I pointed out earlier, McFarland is by and large fair in his handling of the views of other authors. It is a shame that he did not select a specific representative of this "consumerist anthropology" to critique. Absent a face and name, McFarland's summary of this supposedly prevalent western consumerism generalizes to the point of uselessness. "Choice is determined exclusively by the will of the chooser." Later on, McFarland will contrast the Pelagian view of the will as an entity that somehow escapes the cause-effect relationships of the natural world with the Augustinian view, in which the will simply follows a person's desires. I suspect he is importing Pelagianism into the "consumerist" paradigm. But this is an unwarranted conclusion, at least if one goes by the messages embedded in modern advertisements (the presumed media through which this anthropology is presented). The freedom to "choose" presented to a modern consumer is simply the ability to find out in the market something she really likes. It says nothing about the ontological relationship between "will" and "desires." His statement of the limitations implied by consumerism is highly tendentious. As if the average person in a modern western culture really believed that the only constraints on personal choice are finances and "what I can get away with." "The act of choosing itself is conceived as radically private and autonomous: the individual is finally responsible only to herself for what she chooses." As a representation of the views of modern culture, this is just flat-out false. Only if we interviewed prison inmates this might be a majority view. I think it is generally true that moderns believe an individual is immediately responsible only to herself for her choices, but as the consequences of one's decisions spread out to affect other people so does her circle of responsibility. Finally, a person is responsible for the welfare of the people whose lives she affects with her decisions and can be called to account if she fails in her responsibility. I can find plenty of examples to support this view in all areas of popular culture. "Within the consumerist paradigm, a person's choices will certainly affect other people and will themselves be affected by other people's advice and opinions; but however much such relationships may impact the calculus of choice, they remain external to the act of choosing, which can always be abstracted from them as a decision that is essentially by and for the self." On the one hand, this is trivially correct, because it is inevitably true of any view of decision-making. If McFarland wishes to propose a theory of decision-making, as opposed to other types of "voluntary" action, in which it is impossible to abstract a person's act of choosing from external influences, I wish him well. He certainly doesn't do so in this book. On the other hand, his concluding comment that on the consumerist anthropology all decisions are "by and for the self" is so prejudicial it takes my breath away. Seriously, no collective decision-making? No extra-personal considerations (like, say, my own family)? What was he thinking? Now McFarland might respond to this criticism by crediting Christianity's continuing influence on our culture for these remnants of social conscientiousness. At heart, he may argue, consumerism wants to banish all considerations except the needs and desires of the imperial self. Again, this is an overgeneralization. Not all products will sell if promoted with this type of message. Not all consumers will buy when confronted with this type of message. People, after all, are people. Even advertising copywriters realize that encouraging self-indulgence can be taken only so far before it backfires.

This leads me to the one point about which McFarland is glancingly correct. The consumerist anthropology values human freedom of choice. Leave out the Pelagian/Augustinian disputes for a moment to consider the nature of this freedom. Consumers have needs and desires and buy goods and services to satisfy them. Since people have many different needs and desires, the markets adjust their offerings to match what customers are willing to buy. I go to the store looking for a blue hat and find only red ones. The salesperson tells me, "We don't carry blue hats, nobody else wants them." I go home frustrated by my lack of options, until I find a store online that carries blue hats. I place the order and bless our consumer-oriented economy that gives me the freedom to find and buy something that I want. When the market operates this way, it shows respect for consumers as human beings with legitimate desires that may differ from those of other people. Even more fundamentally, it respects the consumer as a person capable of recognizing and pursuing her own well-being. This kind of freedom, the freedom to pursue one's vision of the good, is no invention of modern consumerism. There is good evidence to suggest that a self-perception of being free to pursue options has been selected for over the long course of human prehistory. Therefore, anybody who attempts to rob other human beings of this freedom or even of the sense that they have this freedom, risks serious backlash. For that reason respect for human freedom can be found in all cultures, including the Bible. Consider Paul's teaching on slavery to sin. This slavery robbed Paul of the ability to pursue the good he saw in the law. But in Christ, he was set free from the "law of sin and death." Yes, set free to serve a new master, but in this case, the master commands only what Paul already wants to do, because the Spirit sheds the love of God abroad in the hearts of his people. Granted, Paul's gospel is not "giving people what they want." Nevertheless, by promising "freedom" in Christ, Paul provides an inherently appealing solution to the inherently appalling dilemma of being enslaved to the evil masters sin, death, and the devil.

Likewise, when the market tries to manipulate the consumer to buy things she doesn't really want or need, or squeeze her into a mold in order to suit the convenience of the providers of goods and services, the consumer feels robbed of freedom and resists. It is in this arena that a battle for the consumer's freedom rages. Providers of goods and services will sometimes lie or use various subtle, emotionally-manipulative techniques to encourage consumers to buy. Sometimes, even while the ostensive message is flattering the consumer about her sovereign wisdom to choose for herself, a second, subtler message is appealing to her emotions. The combined message amounts to a deception, undermining the person's normal decision-making capabilities. People are generally appalled when they suspect that they are being manipulated in this way. A general suspicion of manipulative salesmanship is the kiss of death for a product or producer, which explains the great lengths to which they will go to hide or deny manipulative practices. All of this underscores the importance of human beings' sense of their own freedom to act in their self interest. They will fight hard to preserve this freedom. I submit Dostoyevsky's "The Underground Man" as exhibit 1. He was willing to fight for his freedom to destroy himself, if necessary, simply to prove that he didn't fit into someone else's theories of what made people tick. Now, it may very well be that this freedom is at least partly illusory. In one sense, it doesn't matter. The point I want to make here is that this freedom, real or not, is what really lies at the heart of modern western culture's values.

In conclusion, McFarland's initial foray into cultural analysis is troubling, to say the least. I'm sure he could have done better; that he did not should make you wonder how well-attuned he will be to the bases for modern objections to the doctrine of original sin.