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Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 6: Human desire is caused by a set of non-personal factors.

This post is a continuation of an argument I began here. In that post I laid out McFarland's argument that human "sinfulness" is not caused by our natural condition as created by God and began to critique it by questioning his use of a distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis." In this post I will turn to his presentation of cause/effect and show that the type of cause/effect relationship he says does not apply to the relationship between our natures and our character as individuals is also not the type of cause/effect relationship scientists actually posit between them. In other words, although he apparently intends to correct any and all arguments that external factors cause our desires and/or behaviors he ends up passing right over the most convincing arguments. Second, McFarland employs the case of Jesus Christ's "will" to show that human nature cannot cause us to sin because Jesus had a nature just as damaged as ours yet he did not. This argument trades on a basic misunderstanding of multi-factor causation and so fails to accomplish its intended purpose.

Both of McFarland's arguments share a basic misrepresentation of what scientists mean by causality in the case of complex biological systems like human beings. Most of these passages relate to the traditional orthodox Protestant views of original sin as a result of the sin of Adam. In the context of pointing out that modern biology has made the doctrine of monogenesis highly doubtful, he adds, "This inconsistency with the best current scientific knowledge, however, is itself rooted in their common -- and theologically problematic -- commitment to an explanatory framework of cause and effect: Adam sinned (cause) and therefore all humanity is burdened with original sin (effect)." (p. 153) McFarland is entirely correct about this flaw in the traditional Federalist and Realist views of original sin. Modern theories of human behavior agree with this criticism in the sense that one person's actions do not directly, by themselves, cause another person's actions. In fact, the same can be said of almost any biological organism. All external stimuli get filtered through internal chemical and sensory mechanisms, and the combination of prior internal states and internal processing of external stimuli are the actual, direct causal factors for subsequent behavior. Had McFarland limited his criticism of the use of cause/effect categories to its use in traditional accounts of original sin, he could have come out OK. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, McFarland is haunted -- correctly -- by the fear that admitting cause/effect categories into a discussion of the origin of human sin will lead to the conclusion that God created us sinners, and since his commitment to traditional orthodoxy forbids this conclusion, he has contracted a severe allergy to causation.

We can see this in the way that he transfers the idea of sin being the effect of a single, discrete cause from the case of traditional theories of original sin to any theory that asserts human behavior is caused by external factors, no matter how sophisticated its view of causation. Consider this statement:

...because those distorted desires are also ineluctably within us, sin's being "original" does not preclude it being ours. We can, of course, reason that we received our wills in this damaged state as part of our natures, and thus that we "inheritied" them from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and so on, back up the human family tree. But because the will is the faculty in and through which I recognize my own agency, I can never coherently dissociate any defect in my willing from my agency. Consequently, "Adam" can only be regarded as the first in a series of sinners and not as the unique "cause" of subsequent human sin. The language of causation is simply inadequate here: original sin is not a force that radiates forward or outawrd from a single point in a manner that would justify blaming our sinfulness on others."
In one sense, McFarland is right; we can't deny that we have desires that we know are bad and harmful and that we often act on them. Knowing that certainly rules out "blaming our sinfulness on others." On the other hand, it in no way rules out that our actions and desires are caused and that one key factor is our genetic inheritance. Modern theories never claim that the scientific equivalent of "original sin" radiates out from a single point. McFarland uses this simple, single-cause analogy elsewhere as well. In one place he uses billiard balls hitting each other as an example of how causation is inedequate to explain the relationship between "damage" to nature and human sinfulness. In another place, he says,
This point may be illustrated by contrasting two models of the damaged will. The first conceives it on analogy with a physical wound that I can isolate as a well-defined feature of my being with an assignable, external cause.[emphasis mine] Where this imagery prevails, original sin is fundamentally an individual affliction, however widespread it may be: others may have it, but that does not bear materially on my sin, except in the very restricted sense that it was caused by a common ancestor. In the second, original sin is conceived more along the lines of the kind of damage that afflict the members of a radically co-dependent household. Here every individual's sin is intimately bound up with others' (in the sense that it can only be understood by reference to what everyone else is doing in the system), and yet the unity of the system is such as to preclude isolating any one member as the unique "cause" of anyone else's sin, let alone the oldest member of the family as the cause of everyone else's sin (even though that person will have been temporally the first sinner). It will not do to make any one person the scapegoat: none is a sinner apart from the others -- and none can be healed fully apart from the others. (p. 159)

In this quote McFarland is guilty of the fallacy of the excluded middle. What is worse, he clearly has not kept up with psychological research. In fact, most serious psychologists would argue that the desires and behaviors of members of a radically co-dependent household are caused, just not caused directly by the behavior of the other members. If the reader doubts this, a few minutes worth of Google searches for "co-dependency and causation" should clear things up. What McFarland left out completely is the view, not just that we have genetic predispositions that give rise to "sinful" behaviors, but that these predispositions interact with our environment, both physical and social, and other features of our developing body and personality in highly complex ways that in total fully account for our resulting behavior. In regard to causation we are not billiard balls. We are massively-complex biological feedback loops. As a result, psychologists and neurologists are often reserved about the use of cause/effect language when studying the relationship between various factors that affect human behavior. It is much easier to find correlations than cause/effect relationships. But psychologists use the language of correlation as a matter of caution. When research provides sufficient evidence for it, psychologists use the language of causation. For McFarland, the exclusive use of "correlation" to describe the relationship between a damaged nature and a sinful individual is the result of a prior theological commitment to avoid at all costs the conclusion that God made us sinners, no matter what the evidence to the contrary might suggest. This may seem unfair to him, but how else are we to explain that he provides nothing more than cursory and uninformed arguments against modern theories of human behavior?

As I mentioned above McFarland's other major argument against causation is the case of Jesus. He spends chapter 5 of his book arguing that Jesus's human nature included a "fallen will," the traditional confession that Jesus was sinless is valid, and the reason Jesus was sinless despite having a "fallen will" is that his "hypostasis" was the Second Person of the Trinity. Since Jesus is the divine Son, the sinlessness of his divine nature overrules his fallen will. As a human, he was fully exposed to the love and knowledge of God and so followed God's will perfectly at every point. This made him uniquely unable to sin, unlike the rest of the human race, which is unable not to sin.

McFarland is notably cagey about relating this argument directly to the relationship between human nature and individual character. He does not assert explicitly that the case of Jesus rules out a causal relationship until this passage late in the book:

In light of this proposal, it might seem to follow that original sin is simply a way of referring to the effects of the fall as it applies to the will in particular, since the fallenness of all the other components of human nature does not (and, indeed, cannot) produce sin apart from the will. But if (as argued in Chapter 5) Christ assumed a fallen nature and yet was free from all sin, this interpretation evidently cannot be accepted. To do so would be to conflate nature and hypostasis, as though the quality of the latter were determined [emphasis mine] by the characteristics of the former. ... Consequently, though it is right to speak of human desires as distorted by virtue of a vitium inherent in postlapsarian human nature, this cannot be understood as a causal explanation of why fallen human beings are in fact sinners. (p. 184)
A sceptic could ask McFarland for evidence that the historical Jesus possessed a divine nature of the type orthodox Christianity posits. She could also point out that the incomprehensibility of a union of two natures with contradictory characteristics in the same individual makes it impossible for us to come up with a sensible account of such a person's internal states.

As it turns out, there is no need for such scepticism in order to see the flaw in McFarland's argument. In both customary usage and technical language just about everyone besides McFarland would use the language of causation to explain the difference between the case of Jesus and the case of other human beings when it comes to sin. Jesus was not able to sin because the force of his knowledge of God's will so moved his human nature that he invariably desired to follow it more than anything else. In terms of the rest of humanity, that has to mean that his internal experience of the qualities of the divine character continuously stimulated brain circuitry in such a way that his emotional state and patterns of thought always led directly to actions in accord with the will of the Father. This is a causal relationship, pure and simple. To generalize, human behavior is the result of multi-factor causation. In the case of Jesus, McFarland introduces a dominating factor that is absent for all other human beings, namely Jesus's divine nature. Remove that dominating factor and the remaining factors interact as they would otherwise, leading to a different effect. It is ridiculous to assert that the changed effect in the presence of the dominating factor proves that there is no cause/effect relationship between the effect and any of the factors. If I get rid of strep throat by taking an antibiotic, I can't then claim that bacteria do not cause strep throat.

Finally, McFarland's theory is apparently not very convincing even to him. Despite his rejection of every variant of the theory of an historical fall, he ends up using language that only makes sense if some kind of historical fall has taken place or does take place. Consider this: "As created, the will is that feature of human nature by which human beings are freely (i.e., as self-conscious agents) empowered to desire God. When the will is damaged, therefore, its desire is no longer for God -- and desire that is not oriented to God is by definition sinful." (p. 183) Really, "no longer?" When did/does this damage take place? Since he is talking about "damage" he is referring to human nature, not an individual human hypostasis, meaning that something else besides God's creation damaged human nature. Who or what did it? What evidence does McFarland have that any human being -- Jesus Christ excepted, as McFarland so often puts it -- ever exhibited a desire for the Trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity above all else without being explicitly taught to do so? While there may be a genetic component to religiosity, there is no genetic component to Christian faith. We are not born with a desire for God above all else and there is no good evidence anywhere to suppose that any previous human beings were born with such a desire.

What conclusions can we draw? First, assuming that that the God of Christian orthodoxy exists and evolution is true, God created human beings to be sinners. It is true that God can't commit sins for his human creations, but he certainly did arrange for everything necessary to ensure that they would sin. He certainly had the time and power to produce a different outcome, and he didn't. The only reasonable conclusion is that the state of humanity and progress of human history as we have seen it so far is precisely what God wanted. See upcoming posts for the implications of this conclusion for McFarland's account of human responsibility. There are several alternative views that could avoid this conclusion. Most of these views deny something about God that orthodox Christianity asserts, such as his role in the creation of the universe, his sovereign control over it, his goodness (in any sense that we would normally use the word), his personhood, or his existence. Adopting any of these views is anathema to most Christians. Consequently, they regard evolution as the source of the trouble and reject it as inherently incompatible with Christian faith. Obviously, they would not agree with McFarland's use of the nature/"hypostasis" distinction to separate human sinfulness from the web of cause/effect. Second, given that evolution is so well supported by existing evidence and that human "sinfulness" is caused by a combination of factors external to human self-consciousness, orthodox Christianity is false, and modifications around the edges will not be sufficient to save it. If McFarland truly wishes to bring Christian faith closer to the truth, he will need to set aside the pruning shears and get out his axe.

McFarland, if he ever responds to this sort of criticism, is likely to object that my view is inconsistent with our intuitive awareness that we are responsible for our actions. If I am right, McFarland will object, human beings can't be held accountable. This is a serious objection and needs to be addressed. The next set of posts will answer this objection in the context of a larger examination of McFarland's account of human responsibility and his lack of an account of divine responsibility.

One other brief note about causal factors for human behavior. While the view I am advocating for is deterministic, it is not a secularized version of the doctrine of "total depravity." The causes of human behavior are multiple, complex, and operate at various levels. For instance, for all we know some of our thoughts and moods are stimulated, even if ever so briefly, by "random" events at the biochemical or even quantum level. There is no overarching psychological evil genie that twists every firing neuron pattern to yield results only matching its design specs. Creativity is one key phenomenon in support of this view. In contrast, McFarland asserts that while we may be able to control specific behaviors we have no control over our ability to commit sin. Since the root of sin is disordered desire and we cannot control our desires, absolutely everything we do is sinful. This is really just one more example of orthodox Christians holding human beings to unrealistic and impossible standards (as mentioned above, we have no good reason to suppose that the type of desire for God that McFarland describes as true to our created nature ever did or could evolve in the environments in which our pre-human ancestors lived) in order to promote their scheme of a God justified in condemning us all, given a free pass to rage through history murdering and mauling -- we deserve worse than anything we've seen yet --, and punishing his own Son for our "sins" and demanding that we believe in him or else. Wait until you see how McFarland defends this pernicious bullying in his account of human responsibility. Don't miss it!

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