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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 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.

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